BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Pope Benedict XVI criticized Israel’s construction of a security barrier through the West Bank and urged a loosening of restrictions on the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, a day of speeches and symbolic appearances that amounted to a running critique of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
From a morning address alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to a late-afternoon visit to a refugee camp, the pontiff used a full day in the occupied West Bank to highlight some of the main issues on the Palestinian agenda.
His comments were pointed. And although he referred to Israeli security concerns, the focus was on how Palestinians are affected by Israeli measures such as the tall concrete fence that, Benedict said, “intrudes into your territories, separating neighbors and dividing families.”
“In a world where more and more borders are being opened up – to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges – it is tragic to see walls still being erected,” Benedict said at Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, where he spoke in a U.N. schoolyard with the wall and an Israeli military watchtower in the background.
“It is not something that we wanted to build. It is something that we had to build” to prevent suicide bombings and other attacks, responded Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The specificity of Benedict’s comments in the West Bank contrasted with what some Israelis regarded as the bland, generic tone he used this week at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
He twice called Wednesday for international pressure to establish a Palestinian state, and he said he prayed for an end to the embargo on Gaza.
Vatican support for a Palestinian state is not new, but the pope’s comments come at a sensitive time. Netanyahu is skeptical of Palestinian statehood, while President Obama and many other international leaders support it. Obama and Netanyahu are scheduled to meet in Washington next week.
The pope delivered his remarks as he went from a red carpet reception at Abbas’s Bethlehem compound to a Mass in front of a giant Palestinian flag on the city’s Manger Square and a tour of the 5,000-person refugee camp.