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Pope calls Israeli wall symbol of "stalemate"

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Pope Benedict stood by the wall Israel has built round the West Bank Wednesday and called it a symbol of “stalemate” between Israel and the Palestinians, urging both sides to break a “spiral of violence.”

“Towering over us ... is a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached -- the wall,” he said in a speech at a refugee camp in Bethlehem, the town where Christians believe Jesus was born.

“How we earnestly pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built,” he said, on an outdoor stage at a camp school, across a road from the 8-meter (25-foot) concrete wall and an Israeli watchtower.

It was the kind of imagery and language that Palestinians had been hoping for from the pope’s one-day visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in the middle of a five-day tour of the Holy Land, mostly focused on Israeli-controlled Jerusalem.

The German-born pope, who found himself criticized in Israel over what Jews saw as a lack of personal emotion in remarks he made about the Holocaust, was careful to stress that the conflict involved two sides, and urged a just and lasting peace.

“On both sides of the wall, great courage is needed if fear and mistrust is to be overcome, if the urge to retaliate for loss or injury is to be resisted,” he said.

“There has to be a willingness to take bold and imaginative initiatives toward reconciliation. If each insists on prior concessions from the other, the result can only be stalemate.”

He also said: “Diplomatic efforts can only succeed if Palestinians and Israelis themselves are willing to break free from the cycle of aggression.”

Earlier in his speech, the pope spoke at length on the plight of refugees in the Aida camp, who like millions of other Palestinians, are the families of those who fled or were driven out of homes in 1948 in what is now Israel.

The pope, who earlier renewed his call for a Palestinian state, expressed his sympathy for the hope they retain of returning to their homes -- a key demand of Palestinian leaders in negotiations with Israel. However, he stopped short of fully endorsing their demand to have the right to move to Israel.

He said he wanted to “express my solidarity with all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birthplace, or to live permanently in a homeland of their own.”

That won a round of applause from an audience which earlier heard a speech from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

To the refugees, the pope said: “It is understandable that you often feel frustrated. Your legitimate aspirations for permanent homes, for an independent Palestinian state remain unfulfilled.

“Instead you find yourselves trapped ... in a spiral of violence, of attack and counter-attack, retaliation and continual destruction. The whole world is longing for this spiral to be broken, for peace to put an end to the constant fighting.”

Reporting by Philip Pullella, writing by Alastair Macdonald, editing by Douglas Hamilton

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