Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken of his “profound grief and sorrow” after hearing the testimonies of Palestinians whose land has been put beyond their reach by the vast concrete wall Israel has built near Bethlehem.
After saying prayers for the people of Bethlehem and neighbouring Beit Jala in the shadow of the eight-metre high separation barrier, Welby said: “You cannot come and hear the testimonies I heard, you cannot hear from the people who live here, without your heart becoming heavier and heavier, and more and more burdened, with that sense of people whose history has led them to a place where all they have known is disintegrating.”
He added: “As always in these times, it is the weak, the poor who are shoved to the side. The emotional reaction is one of profound grief and sorrow, and of prayer that there will be justice and security for all.”
Welby was visiting Bethlehem as part of a 12-day tour of the Holy Land. In the Cremisan valley, home to a community of Salesian monks and nuns, Palestinian Christians told him of the impact of the separation barrier following its construction over the past two years after a decade-long court battle.
The local mayor, Nicola Khamis, said one of the oldest Christian communities in the world was struggling for the right to self-determination. “Today, the vast majority of our people live in the diaspora. But we are staying here. Cremisan has become a symbol for all people,” he said.
The Balfour declaration, in which the British government supported the establishment in Palestine of a “national home” for the Jewish people 100 years ago, was “one of the darkest acts of colonialism ever seen”, Khamis told Welby. The Palestinians wanted an apology, but “instead [the British] are preparing for a celebration” he said.
Suhaila Abu Sa’ad, 67, said her olive and fruit trees, only 20 metres from her home but on the other side of the wall, could be accessed only by a long drive via a checkpoint. “I can’t express how angry I am. Now we depend only on God,” she said.
Construction of the barrier near Cremisan began in August 2015 at the conclusion of a legal battle waged by the monastery, convent and local landowners. A gate in the wall, intended to allow farmers to access their land, had never been opened, residents said. In 2004, the international court of justice ruled the barrier illegal where it was routed on Palestinian land.
Welby told Cremisan representatives that there were “limits to what the church can do … but we can speak out and remind people of the need for justice and security”. He would raise his concerns with “people in power both here and in the UK”.
Earlier, in an interview with the Guardian and Christian Today, the archbishop said the time may come when parties seeking a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needed to include Hamas in talks.
Speaking after a visit to the Hamas stronghold of Gaza last week, Welby said: “In any place where there’s serious conflict, there’s a point where you need to talk to everyone, but it has got to be the point where you can make some progress.”
In line with British government policy, Welby and his aides did not meet Hamas officials on their brief visit to Gaza. But talks with extremists on both sides of the conflict – Hamas and hardline Israeli settlers – should not be ruled out, Welby said.
“There’s a moment, which I’m not saying is now, when it is possible for it to bring rewards. But the moment is not any moment – you can do it at exactly the wrong time and cause a complete meltdown and undermine all the resistance to extremism. And, secondly, the result [can be] the people in the middle become more disempowered, and you end up privileging those who cause the most difficulty, you reward bad behaviour by attention.”
The British government, along with the EU and the US, adopted a policy of not talking to Hamas after the faction won Palestinian elections in 2006 and took control of Gaza the following year. However, some politicians and diplomats now believe that was misguided. Pointing to the experience of the IRA in Northern Ireland, they say there can be no resolution to the conflict without including Hamas in peace talks.
Welby said people in Gaza told him they felt forgotten by the rest of the world. It was “a place that feels profoundly isolated and besieged … the place where you felt all the problems of the area come together most clearly”.
Beyond humanitarian help, “there’s no obvious fix that is within anyone’s grasp at the moment. There are things that governments could do, but they’re not practically do-able in the sense that people have the courage or the confidence.”
He said that the three great monotheistic faiths of the Holy Land – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – must find a way of co-existence. “I believe emphatically and determinedly and without hesitation that they must find a way of living together. The idea of a religious apartheid, of separate development, would be a catastrophe because this region sets the pattern for so many other parts of the world.”
He added: “It’s going to require enormous leadership from within each of the religious traditions. And it requires a new form of integrity in which religious leaders takes responsibility for failures within their traditions.”
In the past decade or so, “there’s been a total breakdown of the capacity of human beings to live alongside one another. But in the Middle East, it’s happened before and it’s been put right before, and there have been new moments of hope. So that’s our prayer. And that’s what we have to take responsibility for leading.”