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Church leaders hit out at Israeli occupation

Bethlehem has been the scene of some fierce fighting in recent days Keystone Archive

Protestants in Switzerland have protested to Israel about the occupation of a West Bank school they helped to build.

The Protestant Church for Bern-Jura has written to the Israeli embassy, complaining about damage it said was caused by Israeli soldiers on the Bethlehem campus.

“Windows have been broken, doors destroyed – even in the chapel of the assembly hall there was a wooden cross which was taken down and destroyed,” Albert Rieger, a chaplain from the church, told swissinfo.

“At the same time, a ceramic cross, which was a gift to the school, was also destroyed.”

Israeli soldiers used the school, which is normally attended by 240 Christian and Muslim children, as a temporary base during their on-going operation to hunt down suspected Palestinian militants in the Occupied Territories.

Bethlehem was one of several Palestinian-ruled towns re-occupied by Israel this week as the violence in the region reached fever pitch.

Government shocked

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, said he was shocked to learn of Israel’s occupation of the school.

“In fact, humanitarian law prohibits the destruction of civil infrastructure, which of course a school is,” said Muriel Berset Kohen, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry.

The Israeli embassy said it was checking the report.

Rieger said he was deeply disturbed to hear that pupils’ artwork had been ripped down and trampled on by Israeli soldiers.

“That is especially serious for me because the school had tried to work with the children in this way to bring peace and reconciliation,” he added.

The Church raised SFr80,000 to help build the school as part of its ongoing partnership with the Evangelical Church of Bethlehem.

Pupils traumatised

The school is now closed and Rieger said both children and staff had been traumatised. He added that the message of non-violence and peaceful co-existence had also been undermined.

“The whole work of the church in Bethlehem and especially of the school has been focused on the need to find a way for co-existence,” said Rieger.

“Now the great danger is that given all this violence, the children of the next generation are so traumatised that they cannot conceive of living together.”

Rieger believes many Christians across Switzerland have been angered by Israeli military action in the Occupied Territories. “People are shocked. They cannot understand how all these things can be justified,” he said.

He is convinced that a large majority of Swiss people support separate Israeli and Palestinian states, and a political solution needs to be found.

The school in Bethlehem is not the only Swiss-financed building to come under Israeli fire. Berset Kohen reported that a statistics office and a re-integration office for political prisoners had also been damaged.

She added that Swiss agencies were experiencing difficulty in fulfilling some projects in the region as a result of the current situation.

Peace mission

The United States peace envoy, Anthony Zinni, arrived back in the Middle East this week to try to quell the bloodshed. His previous missions failed to break the cycle of violence and tit-for-tat killings.

Berset Kohen said Switzerland supported Zinni’s mission and wanted Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories and from zones under Palestinian Authority control.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission is due to open its annual session in Geneva on Monday. Switzerland, as the depository state of the Geneva conventions, will again appeal to both sides.

“We are really concerned to intervene and make the two sides respect these conventions,” said Berset Kohen.

by Samantha Tonkin

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR