Palestinians in a refugee camp near Bethlehem want to receive Pope Benedict XVI in what they say is the most fitting setting — next to the towering cement wall that is part of Israel's West Bank separation barrier and borders the camp on two sides.
They are building an outdoor theater next to the wall for the pope's visit to Aida camp May 13. They say they chose the spot to highlight life under Israeli military occupation.
However, the Israeli government has ordered the construction to stop, saying camp organizers lack the necessary permits and that the theater's proximity to the wall poses a security risk.
Israel started building the separation barrier in the West Bank in 2002, portraying it as a defense against Palestinian gunmen and suicide bombers. Palestinians have denounced it as a land grab, since the barrier slices off about 10 percent of the West Bank, land the Palestinians seek for their future state. The barrier, made up of fences in rural areas and walls in urban neighborhoods, is about two-thirds complete.
The Aida camp, home to about 5,000 Palestinians, is located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It sprang up in 1948 to house some of the several hundred thousand Palestinians displaced during the war over Israel's creation.
Holy Land tour in May
The pope is touring the Holy Land from May 8-15, and will visit Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, all key locations in Jesus' life. In Aida, he is to deliver a speech and will be entertained by local folk dancers, according Bethlehem's mayor.
The outdoor theater, which is to hold an audience of 1,000, is to be completed by May 5.
Local officials said Israel has pressured them to stop work, and that Israeli soldiers came to the site last week and forced the workers to leave. The workers have since returned and are working long days to finish the project.
"We are determined to receive the pope in this place because it encapsulates Palestinian suffering, as we have the refugee camp, the wall and a watchtower of the Israeli military," said the Palestinian governor of the Bethlehem district, Salah Taameri.
Miki Galin, an Israeli military official in the West Bank, said the theater is being built in an area under Israeli control and lacks the necessary permits. The theater's proximity to the separation barrier could also pose a security risk, he said.
Galin declined to comment on whether Israel is worried about political messages implied by the stage's location, but said Israel is working closely with the Palestinian Authority and local churches to coordinate the visit.
Palestinian and Israeli officials are discussing alternate locations in the camp where the pope could speak, but local officials say there is nowhere in the camp where the wall isn't visible.
"The wall is surrounding us like a ring on a finger," said Palestinian lawmaker Issa Karakeh.