Politics of a papal photo op in Bethlehem
Palestinian authorities in Bethlehem are playing poker with papal protocol, hoping that Pope Benedict will depart from the script during his visit to the town of Jesus’s birth on Wednesday to give them a better photo op. They are so determined to have the pope stand right in front of the towering wall that Israel has constructed through parts of the city that they have built a small amphitheatre next to it where they want to greet him. Israel says the the open-air theatre, about the size of a basketball court, is illegal and ordered a halt to its construction. The Vatican has said the pope will only visit a United Nations-run school across the street. But the Palestinians have continued work feverishly to have the stage and stands ready just in case.
I got a look at the wannabe reception theatre this morning during a pre-papal visit tour of Bethlehem with Doug Hamilton, a correspondent in our Jerusalem bureau, and our Bethlehem stringer Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh. The perspective the Palestinians want is striking. The graffiti-filled wall, which Israel says is for security and the Palestinians denounce as oppressive, runs along one side of the theatre. Behind the stage where the pope would stand is a menacing watchtower. The atmosphere is grim.
(Photo: Palestinian works on Bethlehem stage, 4 May 2009 REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)
While there, we ran into Monther Ameera, coordinator of his visit to the Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem, who said the construction was going ahead despite the Israeli order to stop. “We are resisting — peacefully, but we are resisting,” he said. He had been told the pope would only go to the school, but he still hoped Benedict might cross the road to meet Palestinians who would gather at the theatre. It seems highly unlikely — the pope is anything but the spontaneous type, especially on such a sensitive visit — but that hasn’t stopped the Palestinians from building the theatre anyway.
In fact, the wall will appear on television screens around the world even if Benedict doesn’t stop at the small theatre. It is clearly visible from the schoolyard where he will meet teachers and pupils and it would surprising if the cameras didn’t pan across the scene to show the wall. The graffiti, some of which is quite witty, might not be legible, but the image will certainly come across.
It is not clear whether, as Palestinian officials here say, the Vatican at first endorsed, then rejected, the site.
(Photo:The backdrop the Palestinians wanted for the Pope visit, 11 May 2009 REUTERS/Tom Heneghan
“When we started to work on this stage, a group from the Catholic church came to check our work. They told us to raise the eastern side of it, to make it more secure for the pope when he stands on the stage,” said Monther Ameera, coordinator of his visit to the refugee camp. But instead, Benedict is due to meet pupils at Aida’s United Nations-run school which stands nearby.
Israel began building the West Bank barrier in 2002 with the declared aim of preventing Palestinian suicide bombers from reaching its cities, as they had done with devastating effect in the previous two years. When complete it will run 790 km (490 miles) from north to south coiling around Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements in what the Palestinians charge is a permanent grab for land. Israel calls the barrier a temporary measure.
A U.N. report said last week only 13 percent of land in the Bethlehem area is open to development by Palestinians. The rest is cut off by Israeli settlements, control zones and the barrier.
(Photo: The school Pope Benedict will visit, with the wall in the background, 11 May 2009 REUTERS/Tom Heneghan)
The only way the pope could visit Bethlehem without confronting the massive wall that slices between the town and Jerusalem would be to travel blindfold. To travel the ancient “Hebron Road” from Jerusalem to Bethlehem via Judaism’s holy site at Rachel’s Tomb, requires Israeli security to open big three steel gates, like locks in a concrete canal.
The wall is made of prefabricated concrete slabs some 6 metres (20 feet) high, a type of construction probably familiar to Benedict, a native of Germany whose Berlin Wall symbolised bitter ideological division and lasted 28 years.