Church moderator accuses Israel of 'theft'

Glasgow, Scotland - IN A stinging attack on the Israeli government, the moderator of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly, David Lacy, has accused the Jewish state of "theft" by constructing its highly controversial separation barrier inside the Palestinian territories.

On a two-week trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Rt Rev Lacy said his visit to the West Bank town of Bethlehem - just south of Jerusalem and now separated by an eight-metre concrete barrier - had left him "gobsmacked".

"I was very much in sympathy with why the Israelis built a wall here, and still am to a certain extent," he said. "But when you actually see where it is, you see that it's not for security, it's for making political statements. It's theft of land and I don't know how you can justify it on the grounds of anti-terrorism."

Lacy went on to describe the concrete barrier as "a huge, horrible, oppressive sign of distrust and hatred in the birthplace of the son of God", adding that he would have found it easier to accept the barrier if it had followed Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank.

According to Israeli officials, the barrier is required to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel, and since building began, suicide attacks have dropped by 90%.

The final southern section of the barrier - of which Israel says only 6% will be a concrete wall - is expected to be completed by early next year.

The moderator's comments were met with a sharp response from the Israeli prime minister's office.

Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, said: "With all due respect to the moderator, he doesn't know the realities on the ground and his opinions are obviously tainted by politics.

"The fence is not a political border, it's there for security reasons. As soon as the Palestinians stop their terror activities, the fence will be dismantled."

It is five years since a Kirk moderator has visited the Holy Land and Lacy's first visit to the region."I was in South Africa in 1976 and witnessed apartheid in the raw.

"It had the same effect on me, one of recoiling from the injustice. And then you say, 'You can't just recoil, you have to somehow fight this,'" he said.

Lacy added that he would call on fellow Christians to visit the region in order to "open their eyes to the reality here".

A Kirk committee is currently studying the issue of divestment in Israel in the wake of a 2004 decision by the Presbyterian church in the United States to endorse a policy of divestment in the Jewish State over its policies in the West Bank and Gaza.

The committee's report will be made public at the next General Assembly in May 2006.

When asked if he would actively support divestment, the moderator said: "It would be a dangerous thing for me to be here for two weeks and make knee-jerk decisions about what should be done, other than to express horror and dismay."

However, he also said that while Israelis had told him that "divestment would only hurt the Palestinians, I have met Palestinians who say they are willing to put up with it".

Questioned if the debate on divestment affected the Church's plan to expand its Scots Hotel in the northern Israeli town of Tiberius, Lacy said the Church was committed to the hotel.

"We would be crazy if we don't go with the whole plan, as we have to face economic reality," he said, referring to moves to extend the hotel by another 80 or so rooms as originally intended at a further cost of about £5m.

The £9.5m, 69-room hotel officially opened its doors in October 2004, although it began accepting guests several months earlier. After a slow beginning, managers say the occupancy rate is now steady at about 65%, with November completely booked out.

A Kirk committee, headed by Rev Andrew Anderson, visited Israel last month to review the hotel's operations.

Anderson said the decision to extend would be based on the commercial success of the hotel, which is currently estimated to be losing about £200,000 a year, and would not be made until 2007 at the earliest.