Pope calls for independent Palestine state
Pope Benedict used a visit to a West Bank refugee camp yesterday to issue his most resonant plea yet for an independent Palestinian state while describing the Israeli military's separation barrier as a “tragic” manifestation of years of conflict.
The 82-year-old Pope went out of his way at an open air mass in Bethlehem, and in a later politically-charged visit to the crowded Aida refugee camp, to identify with the plight of Palestinian civilians, declaring: “I know how much you have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades.”
In a UN schoolyard in Aida festooned with banners lamenting the barrier and recalling the expulsion of refugees from their homes in what is now Israel in the 1948 War, the Pope stood beside the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against the backdrop of the wall and a military watchtower.
“Their legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian state, remain unfulfilled,” he said.”
“Mr President, the Holy See supports the right of your people to a sovereign Palestinian homeland in the land of your forefathers, secure and at peace with its neighbours, within internationally-recognised borders.”
Pope Benedict’s support for a state — which the new Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to endorse in public — came after an open air and sometimes festive mass in warm sunshine in the nativity city’s Manger Square, where he expressed solidarity with the stricken public of Gaza.
Referring to the hundred-plus Christians — less than the 250 who had applied — allowed out from Gaza by Israel for yesterday’s Mass, Pope Benedict told the crowds: “In a special way, my heart goes out to the pilgrims from war-torn Gaza.
“I ask you to bring back to your families and your communities my warm embrace and my sorrow for the loss, the hardship and the suffering you have had to endure.”
And in a clear reference both to the damage left by Israel’s three-week military onslaught on Gaza this year and the siege it imposed on the territory after Hamas seized full control there in June 2007, the Pope said: “Please be assured of my solidarity with you in the immense work of rebuilding which now lies ahead and my prayers that the embargo will soon be lifted.”
At Aida the Pope was careful to directly address young Palestinians tempted to armed militancy by calling on them to “have the courage to resist any temptation to resort to acts of violence or terrorism”. And he said that for the wall to be brought down — as he earnestly hoped it would — both sides in the conflict would have to erase the wall “in their hearts”.
But he declared forthrightly: “In a world where more and more borders are being opened up... it is tragic to see walls still being erected. How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built.”
Israel began raising its barrier of fences and concrete through and around the West Bank in 2002 in what it said was a temporary measure to stop deadly Palestinian bombings.
Although Pope Benedict made no reference to “the right of return” of refugees to their homes in Israel, his visit to the Aida camp — where calls for that right are a part of the staple discourse — is unlikely to endear him to Israeli critics.