Prayer against the wall

My first photo exhibit in Norway focused on the Palestinian village of Beit Jala’s struggle against the Israeli separation barrier. Titled in Norwegian and English, Bønn mot muren / Prayer against the wall”, it stood in Oslo’s Uranienborg Church sanctuary from September 20-27. I’ve been covering this story for years in many different publications including +972 and the Alternative Information Center and most recently Electronic Intifada, so it was particularly satisfying to bring it to life in physical form before an international audience. Click here to see the gallery.

Beit Jala residents have fought legal battles against construction of the wall on their land for nearly a decade. In 2011, local Catholic leaders began holding public vigils every Friday. I attended these often while living in Bethlehem from 2012-2014, and these images formed the basis for this exhibit.

The exhibit was funded by the Norwegian church coalition that sponsors the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel, a World Council of Churches initiative that takes place all over the world. This year’s focus was on the wall, and with the recent developments in Beit Jala and my experience there, it was a natural fit. The week’s organizers had even created an online petition for Beit Jala’s case that was released the week of the exhibit. I provided a laptop computer during the launch event so that those attending the exhibit could sign the petition.

Audio from the Friday liturgies accompanied the gallery, including excerpts of sermons by Father Ibrahim Shomali and Pastor Johnny Shawan. You can listen to that audio here:


A priest from Uranienborg, Eirik Rice Mills, a former ecumenical accompanier with EAPPI, and Nicola Bandak, a Palestinian Christian resident of Bethlehem and Beit Jala joined me in speaking at the launch event following the Sunday service on September 20. Priest Jan Oskar Utnem offered a strong endorsement of the exhibit and its themes during his sermon on the final day of the exhibit on September 27 and I offered a shortened version of my remarks following that service as well.

I was also invited to present the exhibition to Uranienborg’s confirmation class during their Tuesday evening meeting. It was a bit daunting presenting such a complex topic to a crowd of teenagers for whom English is not a first language, but I had some nice interactions afterwards with a couple of especially interested students! The exhibit was also available for viewing during several other periods during the week.


The exhibit images and text were printed on photo paper covering 10 PVC panels measuring 60 x 200 cm. Thanks to Lars Grønli at GGM for a great deal on printing and materials! The panels were held upright between concrete curbstones that perfectly matched the panels in size and thematic aesthetics to create a mini wall inside the church.

The exhibit also included two images by my Activestills colleague, Oren Ziv. Oren had photographed the uprooting of olive trees and recent demonstrations against renewed construction of the wall that I was no longer present for this summer.


Prepared remarks from the launch event on September 20:

My name is Ryan Rodrick Beiler. My wife Ingrid and I lived for four years in Palestine, the first two years in East Jerusalem and then two years in Bethlehem, ending in June 2014. Our first son Lukas was born in Bethlehem and many of our closest friends in Norway—some of whom are here today—we first met in Palestine.

During those years I was able to document the weekly vigil that the Christians of Beit Jala organized in order to resist the division of their land by the Israeli separation wall, which is the theme of this exhibition.

During that time I became a member of the Activestills collective of Israeli, Palestinian and international photographers. I want to be sure to acknowledge the vital contribution of two images by my Activestills colleague Oren Ziv who was present in Beit Jala for the uprooting of olive trees and recent protests in August of this year. This exhibition would have been incomplete without these images.

I also want to thank the sponsors of the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel for the funding and encouragement to make this exhibit possible.

While I imagine that many of you are already very interested in Palestine and have even traveled there, I will risk stating some very basic facts that this case of Cremisan and Beit Jala demonstrate about the separation wall. This is because I find that time and time again, in media and even sometimes in the writing of very sympathetic people, some basic misconceptions persist.

I will briefly make only two key points:

  1. The wall does not divide Israel from Palestine.

In many places, the wall does function to separate Israelis from Palestinians, but 85% of the barrier’s route lies inside the West Bank on Palestinian land—not on the internationally recognized border or Green Line. That is why the International Court of Justice declared it illegal in 2004. In many places—and this case of Beit Jala and Cremisan is a good example—the wall divides Palestinians from other Palestinians and from their land.

One image you see here includes a Palestinian Christian landowner arguing with soldiers at a checkpoint. At the time it was a wire fence indicating where the wall will be built. This was taken in 2012 when I joined a group organized by the YMCA/YWCA to help harvest olives in Wadi Ahmed—the valley below Cremisan. Because we were foreigners, we could take our bus and access the land from the Jerusalem side. When we tried to exit through the checkpoint into Beit Jala, we were detained for more than an hour. During that time, we were able to help those harvesting their olives near the checkpoint. Now, as you can see in the more recent photo by Oren Ziv, trees in that area are being uprooted to clear a path for the wall.

The wire fence will be replaced with a permanent barrier, and that same landowner will be at the mercy of soldiers for permission to access his land and his trees. In many other areas, this means only a few days every year for pruning and harvesting—completely inadequate for proper cultivation. This also means that people other than the landowner or their family may not be able to join, making complete harvest impossible.

Beit Jala is famous in Palestine for having the best quality olive oil—often the most expensive. (Yes, Nicola?) Having joined many olive harvests, this was by far the most particular farmer I’ve ever worked with. Every tree had to be completely cleaned of olives and no sticks or leaves were allowed in the bags. His high standards will become very difficult to maintain when he is rushed to complete his harvest according to the whims of a military occupation.

  1. The wall does not provide security.

Most Israelis call the barrier the “security fence”. Col. Danny Tirza, the barrier’s chief architect who is pictured in front of the wall in Bethlehem, insists in his presentations—of which I’ve heard several—that every twist and turn was carefully negotiated with local landowners to minimize disruption to the community while providing security to Israelis. He does not mention that he resigned from his position afternoon the Israeli High Court determined that in at least one case near the village of Jayyous, the route was planned for the benefit of nearby settlements and not purely for security. He also does not mention that he himself lives in a settlement, Kfar Adumim, which like all settlements is illegal under international law.

But even many left-wing Israelis who disagree with the wall or where it was built believe that it stopped suicide bombings, and many international media report this as if it were a fact.

This is simply not true for two reasons:

1) The wall is not completely built. Only two-thirds of its route have been completed. The gap that still exists in Beit Jala is an example of this.

Israeli Ilan Tsi’on, co-founder of “A Fence for Life” is a pro-barrier activist. He says:

“There’s no problem crossing the gaps in the fence and tens of thousands of illegal workers cross it back and forth every day, and there should be no problem getting suicide bombers through with them. So why don’t they? Because that’s the Palestinians’ choice. … So in fact, our security is really an illusion.”

Israel’s former minister of defense Moshe Arens admits the same thing. He told an Israeli newspaper in 2013:

“It’s obvious today that the separation wall is completely useless. It’s damaging Israel in the international arena and it causes hardship for the Palestinians in their day-to-day lives.

Arens is no peacenik. He served as defense minister in three Likud cabinets (Begin, Shamir and Netanyahu). He attributes construction of the wall to hysteria rather than strategic thinking.

“There was panic. When terror attacks occur almost every day, sometimes twice a day, and the Shin Bet comes to you and tells you it’s impossible to block terrorism without a wall, you get convinced. I was also convinced, but today it’s clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks.”

But even as early as 2006, the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the wall did little to deter attacks because it was easy to circumvent. Instead, the report credits the drop in violence partly to the Israeli forces’ ability to foil attacks, but primarily to a truce by Palestinian factions. At the time, Hamas was scaling back its attacks in order to focus on its participation in the political arena.

That is why suicide bombings stopped—not because of the wall.

In addition to the thousands of Palestinian workers who enter through the wall’s gaps, there have been a number of symbolic smashings of holes in the wall by activists in various places as pictured. In almost every case, no security forces have arrived during the action—showing how extremely easy it would be for any motivated individual to breach the wall.

But while the wall does not function to provide security, it does function to confiscate Palestinian land. As the maps show, in the case of Beit Jala, the continued building of the wall will connect the Israeli settlements Gilo and Har Gilo and facilitate their expansion.

Given these facts, the situation seems rather hopeless. Is there any hope?

Several other Palestinian communities have succeeded in winning court cases to change the route of the barrier: Budrus, Bilin, Jayyous. In each case, this returned some (but never all) of their land to the accessible side of the barrier. In Beit Jala, after years of legal struggle and prayerful public protest, the community won their own minor victory: The Cremisan monastery and convent will not be separated from the community entirely. But as the map shows, the solution is somewhat Kafkaesque as the wall will pass directly in front of the convent and then render the monastery accessible via a fenced-in corridor controlled by military checkpoints. The previous route would have cut off both sites from the community entirely.

But this ruling by Israeli courts was a reminder that Palestinians will never find real justice in the courts of their occupiers. This is why they appeal to higher powers.

It’s important to remember that every Palestinian demonstration against the occupation—in Bilin, Nilin, Nabi Saleh, Kafr Qaddum, and Al Ma’sara—begins after Muslim noon prayers. Beit Jala’s protest was unique because it took place in a historically Christian village, and took the form of Christian prayer.

We named our son Lukas after our favorite Gospel writer. Here’s one example why, from the Gospel according to Lukas chapter 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.

The Palestinians of Beit Jala have some experience with unjust judges. And they continue to cry out day and night. Just how “quickly” justice will be granted is yet to be seen.

But in the parable, the widow is persistent in her protest despite the character of the judge. And in this way, all protest can be seen as a form of prayer. We cry out, not knowing if or when an answer will come.

Some people pray on their knees.

Some pray with raised hands.

Some pray with hammers.

One priest lifts the cup and bread.

Another priest lifts the gate of the dismantled checkpoint.

Sometimes the answer is a victory, however small, a change in the map. The nuns and their school for local girls stays on this side of the wall, and the children will not have to pass a checkpoint every day before class.

Sometimes the answer is tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber-coated steel bullets.

Sometimes the answer is jail, as it was for Munther Amira, a friend and leader in the popular struggle who was arrested at an August protest in Beit Jala.

Sometimes the answer is death, as it was for Bassem Abu Rahmah, who was shot in the chest with a high-velocity tear gas weapon while protesting nonviolently in Bilin. The soldier, who shot directly at him from the other side of the barrier, will never face justice in Israeli courts.

Col. Tirza always ended his presentations with the claim that the barrier is only temporary, and as the one to build the barrier, he hopes to one day be the one to remove it.

I always wanted to ask him: When will you be satisfied that it can be removed? There hasn’t been a suicide bombing since 2008. The wall gets credit for stopping them—thus justifying its existence. But if there was another such attack, it would justify the continued building of the wall. Either way, the wall is justified to those living behind it.

I’ll end by quoting a pastor from Beit Jala, Johnny Shawan. At one of the vigils in Cremisan, he recalled attending Bible college in Germany in 1989. He said:

“That year, the walls of Berlin fell down without bloodshed. God, I want to see this history repeated even in our town.

He then asked for prayers ,

“That the walls of hatred and separation would fall down. That one day we’ll see no walls between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians. We feel as the body of Christ that we are one because he made us one. He is the Prince of Peace who took [away] the separation wall. He will take this wall away.”

To which I can only say, “Amen.”


Introductory text as printed on the first exhibit panel:

Palestinian communities have organized various forms of resistance against the Israeli separation barrier. The barrier was declared illegal in 2004 by the International Court of Justice because 85% of its route lies inside occupied Palestinian territory, rather than on the internationally recognized border between Israel and Palestine known as the Green Line.

In the village of Beit Jala, just west of Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians have organized weekly prayer vigils to protest the barrier that would separate the community from olive groves and the Cremisan monastery and convent. These vigils, led by local Catholic priest Father Ibrahim Shomali, have gained worldwide media coverage and have been attended by international church leaders and diplomats.

Area residents have also fought legal battles against construction of the barrier on their land for nearly a decade. In April 2015, the Israeli high court ruled that the army must change the route of the barrier to preserve access to the monastery and convent. But the military interpreted that ruling in the narrowest manner possible, maintaining community access to the religious sites by surrounding them with fences and checkpoints, but still confiscating and dividing land that is privately owned by Palestinian residents of Beit Jala.

Remaining gaps in the separation barrier like this one call into question the Israeli claim that the wall has stopped suicide bombings, the last of which occurred in February 2008. At that time, Palestinians had killed 1,012 Israelis since the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000. During the same period, Israelis killed 4,536 Palestinians.

But as this case demonstrates, only two-thirds of the wall’s planned route has been built. Every day, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers lacking hard-to-get permits pass through the barrier’s remaining gaps, indicating that, as former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens told an Israeli newspaper, “It’s clear there is no connection between the wall and the cessation of attacks.”

In Beit Jala, says Father Shomali, “The wall is being used to link the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, consolidating the Israeli annexation of our land.”

Covering the hilltops on either side of the Cremisan valley, like all settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, they continue to expand despite the fact that they too are considered illegal under international law.

Photographer Ryan Rodrick Beiler lived in the Palestinian territories from 2010-2014. He is a member of the Activestills collective of Israeli, Palestinian and international photographers.