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IHT: “To live and let live, among the olive groves”

by Firas Aridah, December 22nd

ABOUD, West Bank: For the 39th consecutive year, Palestinian Christians in towns and villages like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Aboud will celebrate Christmas under Israeli military occupation. In Aboud, our hardships increased in October 2005, when the Israeli military issued confiscation orders to seize land owned by village residents to build Israel’s security barrier, or wall. The orders were given without consultation with the land owners, contradicting what is expected from a democratic government.

Aboud is a small village northwest of Jerusalem, five kilometers from the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border. The Christian history of Aboud is said to date from when Jesus and the Holy Family passed through Aboud en route from the Galilee to Jerusalem. There are remains of nine ancient Christian Churches here that are visited by pilgrims from around the world.

Local tradition holds that Aboud’s residents received the Christian faith from Jesus himself, who is said to have preached here.

Aboud has approximately 2,200 residents. About 900 are Christians and the rest Muslim. The village is a model of respect among religions. Christians and Muslims have lived here peacefully together for centuries. Aboud’s Catholic school educates Christians and Muslims. Since last December, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims have held a prayer vigil every Friday for Aboud.

Two Israeli settlements already sit on land owned by Aboud’s residents. The first was founded in 1980 as a military base, then converted a year later by the Israeli government into a settlement for Israeli civilians. The second settlement was established as a military base in 1982. Both now occupy hundred of acres of Aboud’s land, confiscated without any compensation.

Israel’s wall will cut off Aboud from an additional 440 hectares, or 1,100 acres, of village land. I deeply understand Israel’s security needs, and its obligation to protect its citizens. I doubt, however, whether separating villages like Aboud from their land, olive trees and water will improve Israel’s security, and whether the wall’s route in Aboud was truly chosen for security purposes.

Aboud’s residents will suffer from the wall through the loss of water and olive trees. Since 1967, Israel has severely restricted Aboud’s use of the West Bank’s richest aquifer, preventing the drilling of wells to access fresh water beneath the village. Therefore, Aboud’s residents must purchase their water from Israel’s national water company.

The Israeli government alleges that the pipes bringing water to Aboud can be rerouted, preserving service. But water access for Aboud can only be guaranteed when residents are allowed to control their water resources and drill new wells. Otherwise, commercial farming, the main source of income, will be impossible. In 2005, Aboud’s residents received about 58 liters of water per person per day, though the World Health Organization’s worldwide recommendation is 100 liters per day. Aboud’s lack of water already causes serious health problems.

Second, the barrier is destroying acres of Aboud’s olive groves, uprooting more than 10,000 olive trees and cutting residents off from many more trees. Many of these trees are more than a thousand years old and have been in their respective families for centuries. For our families, the olive tree is a symbol of life. Generations have provided for their families from these olive groves. One olive tree produces profits of up to $200 each season. The Israeli government’s offer of compensation of $25 for each destroyed tree is an insult, not an equitable solution.

As a priest, I am inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed that missionary work is crucial to peace. Churches run schools, hospitals, senior citizens’ homes and orphanages. These institutions serve as a safety net for many families and provide a valuable link between communities.

I am deeply concerned as well with the rise of religious extremism — Christian, Jewish and Islamic. Along with other religious leaders in the Holy Land, I work daily to try to curb this growing trend.

My message this Christmas is that we can live together. But this can only be possible when each human being accepts the other without conditions. Imposing conditions on others is not the way of God. Each human must be treated fairly. The Israeli occupation must end. Violence and terrorism must stop. There must be no more settlements on Palestinian land. My prayer is that God will touch each heart to bring peace and justice and love to our Holy Land so that we may live together in peace.