ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS/FENCE (FEATURE, PIX)
ABOUD, West Bank, May 18 (Ivan Karakashian, Reuters) - Israel's land barrier is slowly destroying the fabric of this Palestinian village of Christians and Muslims in the West Bank, setting a prime example of why the United States wants settlements to stop.
One third of Aboud's open space has been turned into a buffer zone. Hundreds of olive trees have been uprooted to make way for a dirt road closed off with barbed wire and patrolled by the Israeli army.
The land seized lies beyond Israel's barrier along the 1948 Green Line that was once the Jewish state's western border. The bulge encroaches six kilometres (4 miles) inside occupied Palestinian territory to safeguard the Jewish settlements of Beit Arye and Ofarim.
Palestinians hope U.S. President Barack Obama will press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at talks in Washington on Monday on their demand to remove settlements, checkpoints, walls and fences, and establish a state in return for peace.
Aboud's parish priest Father Firas Aridah blames the Israeli barrier for decimating the income of Aboud's Christian community and forcing 34 families since 2000 to leave in search of more stability and security.
The biggest problem is the loss of their land. Their olive trees have been cut down, and this in turn has cut them off from their source of livelihood, said Aridah.
The Fawadleh brothers, George, Francis and Khalil, watched 117 trees owned by their family for generations being uprooted early last year. They now have only 26 left and worry those will be destroyed as well.
It felt like having a stroke, said George Fawadleh, a Catholic. It's our land. When they uprooted the trees, it was a catastrophe for us. Nearly 70 Christian families own land in the buffer zone, said Aridah. While they currently are able to reach their land through open gaps along the road, to tend their trees or graze livestock, they fear one day being completely cut off.
Aboud lies north of Jerusalem in the Ramallah governorate. About half of its 2,200 residents are Christians. The parish runs a school up to ninth-grade, and most pupils are Muslim.
We live together in every respect, as a united town, as Palestinians, we live with each other in harmony, said Father Aridah, 34, who also serves as headmaster.
Across a small courtyard lies a building housing the church and Aridah's office and residence. The church is beautifully decorated and well kept, in stark contrast to his hectic office.
In Aboud, the priest is for everyone, no exceptions, Aridah said. Not just for Christians, but also for Muslims.
But the Christian presence in Aboud is dwindling, as it is across the West Bank. The main reason they cite is the Israeli occupation and the security restrictions it imposes, stifling the economy and limiting opportunity.
Palestinians say the 720-km (450-mile) barrier Israel began constructing in 2002 is a naked land grab. Israel says it is a temporary security measure which radically reduced Palestinian suicide attacks and has kept its cities safe.
Aboud petitioned against the road before the Israel Supreme Court in 2006 but its plea was rejected. The Israeli army says the security fence tries to balance security needs with Israel's desire to reduce, to the greatest extent possible, any disruptions to Palestinian residents' quality of life.
It notes the court's conclusion that the path of the Security Fence (at Aboud) was built to the greatest possible extent on Israeli state land and close to Israeli communities.
Father Aridah has raised the issue with the Vatican and testified before a United States congressional subcommittee.
Several U.S. senators, including Patrick Leahy, have visited Aboud, so far without producing any change on the ground.
But the priest intends to carry on fighting for the rights of his people, Muslim as well as Christian. The voice of the church must defend the victimized, he says.
The Palestinian Authority says the Christian population of the West Bank -- about 50,000 -- has shrunk over the last 30 years due to emigration. Christians tend to be better educated and richer than the average Palestinian and have opportunities to vote with their feet and seek a new life abroad.
During his pilgrimage to the holy land last week, Pope Benedict lamented the departure of Christians and the artificial divisions disrupting normal life for Palestinians.
One of the saddest sights for me during my visit to these lands was the wall, the pontiff said after confronting the towering barrier between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
As I passed alongside it, I prayed for a future in which the peoples of the Holy Land can live together in peace and harmony without the need for such instruments of security and separation.