Pope Francis Prays at Two Israeli Walls

Pope Francis tried to bring a moral perspective to Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians, including scenes of him praying at a separation wall in Palestine as well as at the famous West Wall in Jerusalem, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The trip by Pope Francis to the Holy Land, billed in advance as solely religious, made some eye-catching intrusions into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Comments minimizing the significance of this aspect of the trip were quick to follow.

Palestinian figure Hanan Ashrawi seemed to go out of her way to pooh-pooh the coming prayer meeting at the Vatican in which Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will join Francis; Ashrawi accused the pope, probably inaccurately, of not realizing that Peres in his mostly ceremonial position wields little power.

Pope Francis praying a separation wall in Palestine on May 25, 2014. (Photo credit: Pope Francis's Facebook page.).

Pope Francis praying a separation wall in Palestine on May 25, 2014. (Photo credit: Pope Francis’s Facebook page.).

Skepticism about how much any leader of the Roman Catholic Church can accomplish follows in the tradition of Stalin questioning how many divisions the pope has. The pope still doesn’t have any divisions, and neither does Peres and of course neither does Abbas.

Francis’s foray into Israeli-Palestinian matters nonetheless was encouraging, for several reasons. One is that for a credible and prominent world figure to do this reduces the chance that the Israeli government can, as Jacob Heilbrunn puts it, “derogate the Palestinian issue to the back burner of international relations.”

The United States will not be venturing very far into this issue anytime soon, after Secretary of State John Kerry’s admirably energetic but ultimately futile efforts on the subject. More fundamentally, the United States still wears the self-imposed political shackles that prevent it from functioning effectively on this issue as anything other than Israel’s lawyer.

The U.S. role still will be critical if the Palestinian issue is ever to be resolved, but perhaps it will take more initiative by someone outside the United States to counteract the power and damaging effect of the shackles.

Another reason is that Francis has demonstrated a flair, and certainly has done so on this trip, for focusing attention sharply on an issue while still performing the balancing acts required of any statesman. The most potent image by far from the visit was the Pope’s stop at a section of the Israeli-constructed separation wall, with Francis bringing his head to the wall and praying.

Here was the counterpart, in wall-for-a-wall balance, to the more familiar image of the distinguished visitor at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. One wall is an ancient artifact that is one of the leading symbols of Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem; the other is an ugly modern contrivance that not only symbolizes Israel’s unilateral slicing up of the West Bank but has practical consequences, negative and severe, on the Arab population that lives there.

A couple of millennia from now, who will be praying at the latter wall, and in remembrance of what? Whether it was Francis himself or someone else in his entourage who thought up this photo op, it was brilliant.

That the Pope is a man of religion may constitute another advantage, in trying to make religion less of a source of division related to this conflict than it is now. Israel’s clinging to land rather than peace has several motives, including economic ones, but a religiously based notion of divine right to the land is important for a major part of the current government’s right-wing constituency.

Perhaps the most prominent leader of Christianity, another of the great monotheistic religions that arose in the Middle East and for which, like Judaism, the Holy Land is the number one place of importance to the faithful, is especially well equipped to teach that no one religious claim can be the basis for determining the outcome of a dispute between two people over the same land. He is probably even better equipped to do that than someone of the Islamic faith, for whom the Noble Sanctuary of Jerusalem also is important but is more of a number three behind Mecca and Medina.

The most important reason, however, to be encouraged by Francis’s involvement stems from his larger set of priorities, and assiduously cultivated image, as the pope of the poor. Championing the cause of the downtrodden is clearly where Francis intends to make his mark.

As such, his involvement in Israeli-Palestinian matters implicitly, even without the pontiff explicitly articulating this point, helps to frame the issue correctly as what it has been for a long time: a highly asymmetrical encounter in which security and power and control are almost all on one side, and the downtrodden are on the other side.

This is not some kind of fair fight in which each side has significant material assets to bring to bear. The Israelis, as the occupiers, can end the occupation whenever they want. The Palestinians, as the occupied, have almost nothing going for them other than sympathy for the downtrodden and appeals to a sense of justice, which is why the Israeli government frantically resists any move that might give the Palestinians a wider forum for such appeals.

Along with the great asymmetry of security and military power and control there is a comparable asymmetry of wealth and well-being. The system, constructed and controlled by Israel, that determines how the occupied territories operate functions to the economic advantage of Israelis and to the marked economic disadvantage of Palestinian Arabs. This involves matters ranging from water resources to transportation arteries and the separation wall, which divides many Palestinians from their livelihoods and is just one of countless impediments to Palestinian business erected by the occupation authorities.

There also are numerous less visible impediments, involving permit denials, restrictions on trade, and financial controls. Most recently Israel is using its control over currency to undermine Palestinian banking, with, as is the case with any banking system, negative ripple effects on other commerce that depends on the banks.

It should be no surprise that in the face of all these impediments the economic gulf between Israel and the Palestinians under occupation is huge and has been getting larger. GDP per capita in Israel is nearly 20 times that of the West Bank. It is 40 times that of the Gaza Strip, where a suffocating blockade and periodic military assault have made the squalor even worse.

For the pope of the poor, the plight of the Palestinians is a natural fit for his larger mission. Perhaps Francis can get enough people in the world thinking about this issue correctly, not in terms of diplomatic dances about who is recognizing whom but instead as the plight of an oppressed and downtrodden population, that even discourse in the United States, political shackles and all, would be affected.

If so, the effect would be congruent with the other, more hard-nosed, reasons the United States should not allow this conflict to be consigned to the back burner.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “Pope Francis Prays at Two Israeli Walls

  1. elmerfudzie
    June 2, 2014 at 13:11

    References to Israel and it’s right to repossess the “land of milk and honey” runs head long into an old and often repeated theological problem, that is, both warring sides, are praying to the same God;Yaweh, Adonis, Father, Allah, Abba. Those biblical references to military projections by the Israelites into Canaan and endless efforts occupying the land of milk and honey were fought against heathen peoples who crafted images of gods made with their own hands, thus drawing a comparison to political and religious realities today are difficult. Does a thousand generation blessing that permitted the conquering of heathens now extend to Peoples who believe in the same God? The often repeated phrase rises to the surface again, quote; those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Palestinian against Jew, German Protestants and Catholics fighting against American Protestants and Catholics during the last World War, Irish Catholics against Irish Protestants. The obvious bears repeating and should have, certainly by now, influenced diplomatic circles enough not to repeat these ancient religious frictions and mistakes. That said, the Pope seems to symbolize a long but steady return to entangling political forces and entities with religious institutions. Wherever the Pope goes, it’s with an entourage of almost three thousand, priests, bureaucratic aids and security personnel (sounds like a president doesn’t it?). This began with the Vatican City State creating a diplomatic corps with Ambassadors and special passports. Add to this merging, a more powerful economic sway, such as the Jesuits gold reserves, so abundant that they can greatly influence precious metal commodity markets world wide. I don’t know where all this is going but it looks as tho another historical blunder is in the offing.

  2. Edward Brynes
    May 28, 2014 at 18:13

    “The Israelis, as the occupiers, can end the occupation whenever they want.”

    Really, one would think that after his years working in Intelligence and teaching at Georgetown Univ, the writer would know better. But I realize I’ll need to explain anyway. Look at the Shabak monthly summary of terrorist activity:


  3. Boiled Frog
    May 28, 2014 at 14:50

    When Israel stops their attempts to eradicate the Palestinian Arabs, maybe Hamas will recognize Israel’s “right to exist”.

  4. Hillary
    May 27, 2014 at 22:31

    Professor Filkenstein equates the situation in Gaza to that of the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII.

  5. Joe Tedesky
    May 27, 2014 at 16:26

    The pope better keep an eye out that Victoria Nuland isn’t passing out cookies in St Peter’s Square.

  6. Fred Taylor
    May 27, 2014 at 16:11

    I am so grateful for this article about Pope Francis’ visit. As a Protestant I am grateful that this pope has both the sensitivity and imagination to act on the public stage in a way that holds up the structural plight of the poor – in this case the Palestinians.

    • May 28, 2014 at 17:34

      “He managed to be political by being religious — exclusively religious,” said Pascal Gollnisch, head of the French Catholic NGO Oeuvre d’Orient.

      Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said “the Palestinians were touched” by his gesture and the pope was also “clearly moved by the experience.”
      Francis’s decision to fly directly from Jordan to Bethlehem rather than starting his trip in Israel — which ruffled feathers in the Jewish state — was seen as “active recognition of the state of Palestine,” she said.
      Writing in the left-leaning Haaretz, columnist Matthew Kalman said the immediacy of the wall and the message of suffering it conveyed clearly gave the Palestinians the upper hand.

      “Israelis take their visitors to Yad Vashem (Holocaust museum) to recall Jewish suffering a half century ago, more than one thousand miles away.

      “But Palestinians take their visitors to the wall, the 30-foot-high, ugly, towering proof of Israeli-inflicted suffering, right here, right now,” he wrote.
      “In the complex game of Papal propaganda poker, that’s a Royal Flush for the Palestinians.”

Comments are closed.