‘The threat of annihilation’: Svalbard Church priest returns to West Bank to try to save village from demolision


Inside the home, “considered to be more of a big tent,” there’s a “happy reunion” with a family celebrating the post-fast Iftar meal during Ramadan. Outside, soldiers are awaiting orders to destroy the village, which those inside the tent believe may happen the next day.

The stark contrast is only one of many for Leif Magne Helgesen, as the priest at the world’s northernmost church is back in the West Bank on behalf of Palestinians suffering from what he calls Israeli repression.

He spent the final three months of 2014 in the area protesting Israeli settlements, but is facing a more immediate and damaging threat this summer in Khirbet Susiya, a village with about 350 residents that Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered demolished by Aug. 3

“The threat of annihilation is the opposite of peace,” he wrote Monday in blog of his trip being published by Aftenbladet. “It creates uneasiness. The fear rubs off on the children who do not know if they will have a home tomorrow. Possibly the village will be left in peace during Ramadan. Perhaps the international presence and attention make it harder to take the final step.”

“But tomorrow quite possibly the white cars, bulldozers and quantities of soldiers with rifles loaded with bullets will surround the village and put everything in ruins. Some are sitting in their uniforms and planning how it will happen. They protect their own children, while the children of others becomes a concept.”


Large tents serve as housing for most residents of Susiya, which has been demolished several times by Israeli troops since the 1980s. Photo by Leif Magne Helgesen.

The village, which Israeli leaders say was initially built on an archeological site dating back to biblical times, has been demolished several times during the past few decades as part of a larger effort targeting what are now 40 “unrecognized” Palestinain villages not connected to the Israeli water systems or power grids.

While the dispute includes numerous aspects of the deep religious, historical and political divisions in the area, Helgesen and others trying to stop the current demolision argue Israel is increasingly encroaching on what is now established Palestinian land and inflicting human rights violations on its settlers.

Helgesen – no stranger to controversy as part of his work at Svalbard Church – stated he was about to take a vacation only days after kicking off an international “climate pilgrimage” with an outdoor Mass near the church calling for action to combat climate change. But Norwegian Church Aid called and requested his help as part of an effort by the United Nations Refugee Agency to establish an international presence in Susiya.

“I shall be visibly present in an attempt to prevent the destruction that is foreshadowed,” he wrote in a June 16 blog post. “My weapon is a camera, a pen and my Norwegian passport. It may be a quiet summer with long hours in the hot sun, but it may also go en entirely different way. Peace is possible, but peace is hard work!”

Helgesen is also calling for a boycott of all Israeli products, a step beyond the Church of Norway’s call for a boycott of items produced in illegal settlements. An online poll in Svalbardposten shows that, as of Tuesday, 170 supported a boycott of all Israeli products, 157 were opposed and 20 had no opinion.

The priest is making his request with a tone of regret, citing a reverential appreciation for the holy sites of all faiths while visiting the Old City of Jerusalem before his arrival in Susyia.

“Disparities are sadly often a threat, but the times we manage to have a larger overview, and respect each other’s different cultural traditions and religious expressions are perceived like a taste of the best wine,” he wrote.