This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
There were plenty of important statements from Pope Francis during his recent three-day trip to Palestine and Israel—including a plea for “justice,” a traditional call for peace and a reference to the “State of Palestine”—but at the end of the day it was all about the photo-ops.
The pope’s visit was carefully orchestrated—shaped not only by security concerns but by his insistence on avoiding Israeli checkpoints. American and other official visitors often work diligently to avoid having to see—or be photographed seeing—the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints or the apartheid wall that snakes through the West Bank, separating Palestinians from their land and dividing the area into tiny, noncontiguous pieces of territory.
But Pope Francis’ complicated logistics were not aimed at pretending not to see but at refusing to acknowledge Israeli power and control over the Palestinian territories. Instead of crossing into the West Bank through the Israeli military–controlled Allenby Bridge, for example, his helicopter flew directly from Jordan to Bethlehem, in the West Bank. He said mass at Manger Square, but what got all the international attention were his meetings with Palestinian refugees, his visit with kids at the Dheisheh refugee camp and his unexpected invitation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres for a “prayer summit meeting” at the Vatican.
But by far the most lasting image of the trip was the popemobile’s seemingly unscripted halt in Bethlehem. For days, Bethlehem’s kids had fought a running battle with Israeli troops—not with stones, but with spray paint. Each day, the troops whitewashed the graffiti that covers the apartheid wall, which in that area separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Each night, the Palestinian kids would return to recreate their art.