Pope Benedict XVI

Trapped–on Both Sides of the Wall

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square. Several dozen Gazan Catholics were permitted to leave Gaza and cross the Wall to attend. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’ the well-worn Robert Frost quote goes, and that something was me on Wednesday. Wandering around Bethlehem’s eerily empty streets in the heat, I was unable to leave the city after a day of papal events because a very large slab of concrete was blocking my way.

My CRS colleague and driver had misplaced his cell phone and we’d gotten separated during Pope Benedict’s Mass at Manger Square in the morning. In the afternoon, after seeing Pope Benedict bless babies at a Bethlehem infant hospital, another colleague and I roamed on foot from one checkpoint to a second one. The checkpoints are places where people can cross the 25-foot-high Separation Wall to get to Jerusalem, which is theoretically twenty minutes away. The streets had been closed off and were deserted; no taxis were anywhere.

Palestinian mother with child

A Palestinian woman and her daughter outside the Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem. On May 13, the pope briefly visited the hospital and blessed several infants. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

“Towering over us … is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached – the wall,” Pope Benedict said at a nearby refugee camp at the same time we were wandering. As my coworker looked for Wall personnel to see if any doors were open, I stood next to the Wall and stared up at its gray bulk. It definitely towered.

My problems, of course, were pretty minor. We walked for 20 minutes or so, and true to Bethlehem’s biblical reputation, a good angel found us. Though the street was closed to outsiders, a man who was perhaps a neighborhood resident happened to drive by, and immediately agreed to drive us to a place where we could meet a cab. We waited at a crossroads, eating some almonds I had bought at Manger Square as thousands of people flowed away from the Mass site. Eventually the cab arrived and we took a detour to an alternate checkpoint.

What was an inconvenience for us today wasn’t just related to typical Israeli policies; special security rules had been put in place for Benedict’s visit. And I have certainly spent some time waiting in line at metal detectors in America: at museums, theaters, airports. Yet the Wall represents something different.

Better minds than mine have mulled the Wall endlessly—the families it separates, the farms and businesses it undermines, the fear it breeds. Better minds have also discussed its pros, or rather its single, near-unanswerable pro: it may keep terrorists out of Israel.

On Wednesday the Wall did not keep out a swarm of loud, cheering Gazans. Ninety-three Gazan Catholics were permitted to leave their territory and come to Bethlehem for Pope Benedict’s Mass. During his sermon, the pope spoke directly to “pilgrims from war-torn Gaza” and spoke of the “suffering you have had to endure.” Referring to blockade that forbids Gazans to leave their small strip of land, the pope went on to say in English, “I pray this embargo may be lifted.”

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square as massgoers chant “Viva il Baba! Viva il Palestina!” [Long live the pope! Long live Palestine!”] Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Catholic Relief Services has tried to help West Bank people affected by the Wall and Gazans affected by the blockade. We give food to families who once farmed land they now can’t access. We create jobs, like making cheese or building agricultural roads, to give work to those whose livelihoods have been compromised by access restrictions. We built a youth center in Aida camp, where the pope visited, so children who could no longer walk to nearby fields had a place for activities.

We also help Israelis hurt by violence. After the Lebanon war of 2006, we gave money to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to help Israelis displaced by shelling on the Lebanon border.

We can provide stopgap help. But the larger questions about the Wall remain. How do we keep people safe from terrorism? Aren’t a lot of inconveniences worth it to save lives? How do we create a secure homeland for Israelis, who deserve to feel safe in their country? What if the Wall is working, and people are walking down the streets of Jerusalem today alive because it exists?

No one has a good answer to the dilemmas raised in the Holy Land, but Pope Benedict seems sure that walls are not it.

Catholic Relief Services partners with the Bereaved Families’ Forum, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the conflict. Instead of turning in on themselves and building new barriers, they have let the walls in themselves crumble, and stepped over into new land. Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose 14-year-old daughter died in a suicide bombing, crosses through the Separation Wall to visit the Palestinian friend he made through the group. Rami often says, “There are two kinds of people the Wall can’t keep out: those who want to kill, and those who want to make peace.”

Wednesday at the refugee camp, Pope Benedict urged everyone trapped by one side or the other of the Wall to do what the Families Forum has done: “To remove the walls we build around our hearts, the barriers that we set up against our neighbors.”

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