Beit Jala, occupied West Bank - On a rocky outcrop overlooking the Cremisan Valley, the mayor of Beit Jala, Nicola Khamis, reaches for a bright orange ribbon tied to a branch of a nearby olive tree, flapping gently in the afternoon breeze.

"The soldiers have already been up here," Khamis said, pointing to a series of green and orange ribbons tied to neighbouring trees.

The ribbons are markers affixed to the trees by Israeli forces to show the planned route of Israel's separation wall, Khamis said.

Our message is a simple one: to say that this is our land.

Michel Sabbah, former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

If the wall is constructed as planned by the Israeli defence ministry, it will cut the Cremisan Valley off from the adjoining town of Beit Jala. As many as 58 families from the town would lose access to their land, as a result, and 300 hectares of land would fall on the other side of the wall.


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Across the valley, two cranes are excavating the earth and rock just above the valley floor. They began digging in the middle of August, despite an Israeli High Court ruling in April that halted construction of the wall and called on the defence ministry to justify its route. However, the court then said in July that its earlier ruling only applied to a part of the route close to a Salesian monastery and convent.

Israel says the wall is necessary for its security, but Khamis said the planned route is an attempt to take more land for the nearby settlement of Gilo and could be a pretext for joining it with Har Gilo, another settlement that sits above Beit Jala.

"If it was for security reasons, then why aren't they building the wall up there?" he asked, pointing to Gilo, perched on the other side of the valley.

Spokespersons for the Israeli army and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories Unit did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

Earlier in the morning, Khamis attended a peaceful demonstration in Beit Jala to protest the construction of the wall through the town's land. Dozens of residents and activists gathered to hear the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, give a short speech.

"Our message is a simple one: to say that this is our land," he said. "And to the Israelis building the wall: You are building a double wall - one on the land and one in your hearts. Now you are not able to see that the land is not yours. But one day, God will give you the grace to see what is yours and what is ours. One day, the wall in your hearts will fall."

Waving Palestinian flags, the protesters proceeded slowly through Beit Jala and stopped at the construction zone, where Israeli security forces blocked their path. The protesters chanted slogans until the security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at the crowd.

Among them, Father Aktham, a parish priest in Beit Jala, was upset at the reaction of the Israeli security forces, but he remained defiant.

"We are peaceful. We want peace. What [the Israelis] are doing, under the protection of their weapons, is not for peace. It is for continuing the occupation of our land," he told Al Jazeera.

Scuffles broke out and two people were arrested, according to Israeli police.

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"The reaction of the soldiers, to throw gas bombs at the people - especially at the car of the patriarch - it was unjust. People were here to say 'no' in a peaceful way, but the soldiers reacted in the wrong way," he said.

After the gas dispersed and the crowd fell away, a group of Beit Jala residents reconvened in the town.

Sixteen-year-old Nahleh, whose family owns 3 hectares of land in the Cremisan Valley, said that even though he had never been able to visit his land, it was part of his identity.

Another Beit Jala resident, George, 20, said that if the wall was built, it would be a disaster for the town. "Beit Jala is a small town. The town has no land. If they take this much land, we will have nothing left," he told Al Jazeera.


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Israel began building the 700km separation wall in the occupied West Bank in 2002, during the second Intifada.

Currently, the sequence of towering concrete walls, razor wire fences and military roads is about two-thirds complete. In 2004, the International Court of Justice found that construction of the wall violated international law.

The Palestinians of Beit Jala have been fighting Israel's plans to build a wall through their town's land for eight years. Last year, they received support from Pope Francis during his visit to Bethlehem, as well as from the international Christian community. Now, they are hoping that international support can help pressure Israel to change the route of the wall.

The day before the protest, Beit Jala's mayor had returned from Rome. He had met with the Palestinian ambassador to the Vatican, Issa Kassissieh, and presented a letter to be delivered to the pope.

"We asked Pope Francis to help us in this case," Khamis told Al Jazeera. "As he helped us before, I think he can help us stop the building of the wall here. I think he can do a lot more than before."

Source: Al Jazeera