BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK — Standing near a towering concrete wall at the edge of the West Bank, Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday called the Israeli-built barrier a stark reminder of the deadlocked Middle East conflict but declared that walls could be taken down.
"First, though, it is necessary to remove the walls that we build around our hearts, the barriers that we set up against our neighbors," he said during a stop at a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem. He urged Israelis and Palestinians to overcome mutual mistrust and "break free from the cycle of aggression."
The pontiff's black limousine passed through steel gates between the barrier's 26-foot-tall concrete slabs, festooned with slogans such as "Bridges, Not Walls," to arrive from Jerusalem for a daylong pilgrimage. His Palestinian hosts were eager to elicit a papal condemnation of the barrier, which they brand an illegal construction used by Israel to gain territory by redrawing its frontier.
Israel says the barrier, a series of walls, fences, trenches and other obstacles that stretch for hundreds of miles, was designed to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers who frequently terrorized the Jewish state until a few years after the barrier's construction began in 2002.
Mindful of its emotional significance for each side, the pope told 300 residents and Palestinian dignitaries at Bethlehem's Aida refugee camp that the barrier "intrudes into your territories, separating neighbors and dividing families." But he did not challenge Israel's explanation for it.
"How earnestly we pray for an end to the hostilities that have caused this wall to be built," he said.
During a weeklong journey through Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, the 82-year-old pontiff has tried to resist efforts on both sides to pull him into the fray.
On many issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has aimed to be balanced, ambiguous or noncommittal.
In Bethlehem he voiced "deep compassion" for the hundreds killed in Israel's winter assault in the Gaza Strip, which was meant to halt rocket fire by militants, but he urged Palestinians to refrain from responding with acts of terrorism.
The pope met with families of two Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, a Vatican spokesman said, two days after meeting the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who has been held captive by militants in Gaza for nearly three years.
He called for freer movement in Israeli-controlled Palestinian territories and an end to a blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt. Standing alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he delivered his strongest support yet for an independent Palestinian state -- something Israel's new government refuses to promise -- and urged other nations to join in pressing both sides to negotiate in good faith.
Yet he has also avoided using the word "occupation" or faulting Israel explicitly for any Palestinian grievance.
Benedict's carefully parsed lament over the Israeli barrier drew no applause at the gathering in the refugee camp. He read his remarks in monotone, without looking up from his text or gesturing toward the concrete 100 feet behind him. Some listeners said they had tuned out by then.
Others, attentive to the Arabic translation, said they were disappointed he had not branded it illegal, as the International Court of Justice has done.
But many in Bethlehem welcomed his visit as an affirmation of the Palestinian cause.
"The pope doesn't need to say out loud that Israel is responsible for the occupation, the blockade, the prisoners, the suffering," said Issa Tarazi, a 57-year-old cardiologist. "It's known all over the world."
Tarazi said he was one of 88 Christians from Gaza, out of more than 250 who applied, who were permitted by Israel to travel to Bethlehem for Benedict's visit. They joined about 5,000 other worshipers for Wednesday's papal Mass in Manger Square, near the site where Christians believe Jesus was born in a stable.
Tarazi, a Greek Orthodox lay leader, said Benedict "has given us nothing but sympathy."
The pope drew sustained applause in the refugee camp for an ambiguous remark about its 4,000 residents' greatest aspiration -- to return to ancestral homes in what is now Israel.
Few issues in the conflict are more contentious. Several million Palestinians are from families that fled or were driven from their homes in the fighting that accompanied Israel's independence in 1948. Israel says their massive return would spell an end of the Jewish state.
On Wednesday the pope was regaled with a sash embroidered with a key, symbol of the refugees' claim to homes they have lost. He accepted the sash and hung it around his neck, as if to endorse their right to return.
But his speech stopped short, voicing "solidarity with all the homeless Palestinians who long to return to their birthplace, or to live permanently in a homeland of their own."
After the pope had left, Issa Karaki, a member of the Palestinian parliament and leader in the camp, explained the hearty response: "People hear what they want to hear. Regardless of what he said, his appearance in this camp was an endorsement of our right of return. His presence was an act of support."