Witnessing the Strangulation of Bethlehem
By Susanne Hoder
The February morning was chilly as our United Methodist group left Bethlehem for Jerusalem. Under normal circumstances, this would be a ten minute drive, but the old roadway that Christians travelled for centuries has been blocked. As we had done earlier in the week, we took a bus which passes through the Tantur checkpoint on a modern highway manned by Israeli soldiers.
Once again we disembarked and presented our passports while soldiers checked the vehicle. The process seemed routine, though we knew this road was for Israelis and tourists only. Christian natives of Bethlehem and their Muslim neighbors face a much different ordeal at a separate checkpoint where they must pass on foot through a maze of “cattle chutes” and turnstiles, often waiting for hours in line. That checkpoint is built inside Bethlehem and is part of the concrete wall that annexes much of the town’s land to Israel.
On this day, we were told that tourists were no longer allowed to use the main route. A new order had been handed down requiring tourists to pass through Terminal 300, the Palestinian checkpoint across town. The bus could proceed, but we would have to walk back to an intersection, hail a cab and use the onerous checkpoint to exit Bethlehem. It did not matter that one in our group was blind, or that we had appointments to keep in Jerusalem.
Though we were stunned, this fits into a pattern we had heard about, which is to discourage tourists from visiting Bethlehem on their own. Israeli tour groups whisk tourists into town for a brief visit to the Church of the Nativity. They see essential sites and leave immediately for Jerusalem, spending their tourist dollars inside Israel.
Our church’s representative in the area had told us that tourists are often cautioned not to deal with the local people, who are presented as dishonest and dangerous. I thought of the warm and welcoming Palestinians who have become close friends and hosted us in their homes….Boy Scout leaders, YMCA staff, teachers, clergy, businessmen and farmers. These are the people who have kept the Christian presence alive in the Holy Land for thousands of years. Now artisans whose shops are filled with merchandise are suffering tremendous losses. Clean and friendly hotels, with rates much lower than those in Jerusalem, are sparsely filled. Restaurants with terrific food are largely empty.
Israel’s attempts to destroy the economy of Bethlehem can no longer be ignored. Closures and land confiscation are draining the lifeblood from this ancient town that has thrived for centuries on tourism. About 70% of Bethlehem’s farmland has been annexed to Israel by the separation wall, which also destroys commerce.
We met with business owners who cannot import parts for their machinery and vehicles. We had dinner with a man who had been forced to close his factory, putting 120 people out of work. By the time he paid employees to drive on segregated roads, wait in line at checkpoints and get the goods to market, he was spending more than he would make. The difficulty of importing raw materials and the high energy costs charged to Palestinians made his business impossible.
Israel has already built 20 settlements on Bethlehem land and is building another near Rachel’s Tomb. These colonies are outside Israel’s borders and violate international law. We visited with a Palestinian family living next to Rachel’s tomb. The views from both their front and back windows were filled with the snaking grey wall. These are lovely, educated people whose families have been among the Christian leaders in Bethlehem for generations. Their children cannot play outside. At 4:00 in the morning noisy taxis line up on the street below, depositing workers from all over the southern West Bank who must pass through Checkpoint 300 to earn a living.
Sitting at the family’s table and receiving their warm hospitality, we knew that our tax dollars are paying for the wall and settlements that are strangling their lives. It was hard to explain that most Americans are unaware of the repression they face and their courageous nonviolent resistance.
Leaving the Tantur checkpoint, I told the soldier that we would return home and tell our leaders what had happened. He laughed and said “America loves us!” As Congress prepares the latest installment in a $30 billion aid package to Israel, it is time to reconsider that affection.
Susanne Hoder is founder of the Interfaith Peace Initiative and an active member of the UMC New England Conference, serving on the Divestment Task Force. She has spent eight years studying the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and has visited the region repeatedly, leading a United Methodist study group in February, 2010.
(Photo attached: This was taken by a member of our group, Yvonne Turner, from the porch of a friend’s home. It shows fertile Bethlehem land annexed to Israel by the wall.)
Bethlehem PowerPoint Presentations
http://www.openbethlehem.org/ - Bethlehem Today and the Annexation of Rachel's Tomb. (download)
For a map of the Wall in Bethlehem, please see http://stopthewall.org/maps/857.shtml
(See especially photo of an Israeli settlement in the Bethlehem area, built where a majestic pine forest once stood. http://www.vtjp.org/images/harhomawithfencelg.jpg)
Bethlehem Web Site
Bethlehem - A personal remembrance
by Susanne Hoder, Moderator of the Interfaith Peace Initiative
Bethlehem today is imprisoned and impoverished, subject to the same ethnic cleansing and land theft that plague the rest of the West Bank. Israel has divided Bethlehem with a wall, annexing Bethlehem land and confiscating Rachel's Tomb. It has built one illegal settlement after another on Bethlehem land. The process of dispossession and division continues, and threatens the Christian and Muslim presence in the town of Christ's birth, where for centuries the two communities have lived in peace.
I was there in 2004, and was sickened to see the menacing three story concrete wall cutting through the town I had pictured as a quaint reminder of Biblical times. In fact, many people in Bethlehem and the West Bank descended from Christ's earliest followers and have lived there for thousands of years. Now they suffer alongside their Muslim neighbors as Israeli bulldozers destroy everything in the path of expanding Jewish settlements and the wall.
I met a lovely Bethlehem couple at the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Jerusalem. They had awakened one morning to find their view of the valley blocked by a stark grey wall, as cranes had worked overnight to put the sections in place. They invited me to come with them to their parents' hilltop farm on the outskirts of Bethlehem, less than 6 miles away. It is a breathtaking spot, purchased by their great grandfather when he came to the area as a Christian evangelist in the early 1900's. Surrounding it on three sides are Israeli settlements. On the farm I saw evidence of an attack by settlers the preceding year. They had destroyed 300 olive trees and burst the family's water tower, telling them to leave, because this was the settlers' promised land.
We walked among sycamore and fig trees, and saw the cave where the grandfather had lived when he first came to this region. The family is using the farm now as a retreat center and summer camp, hosting Christians from around the world in an effort to keep Israel from confiscating this land too. I promised them that I would tell Americans what is happening.
At all the holy sites I visited, I met people who were shocked at the silence of American Christians as the Holy Land is being destroyed. They could not imagine that in our society where free speech is protected, most people have no idea what is happening to them. As members of the Body of Christ in the larger world, these Palestinians are calling out for Americans of every faith to listen.
Not the Bethlehem of Our Thoughts
by Leila Sansour
Published by the San Diego Union Tribune (California)
on Saturday, December 30, 2006
"Christmas in Bethlehem this year was the most difficult in memory. This reality probably wouldn't surprise most Americans who have a general sense of Middle East conflict. However, a survey we commissioned reveals that Americans are ignorant of many other basic facts about Bethlehem. Most Americans cannot identify our town's location, its inhabitants, or the cause of Bethlehem's demise according to most of its residents, Israeli military occupation...." (see link for full article) http://www.commondreams.org/views06/1230-28.htm
Catholic Property Seized
According to a Catholic web site, Israel is building a wall through the homes and land of Catholics in Bethlehem and The Holy Land separating the Way of the Cross. It is confiscating Catholic Church property, including land used by a Catholic orphanage, and is denying the Church's right to a court hearing to challenge the taking of Catholic Church property. (http://www.culturalcatholic.com/Bethlehem.htm)
Memories of Bethlehem
Mazin Qumsiyeh, Palestine News Network
Dec 25, 2006
This article was originally published by the Palestine News Network. Mazin Qumsiyeh is a friend of IPI members. He is a Connecticut-based medical geneticist who has taught at Duke and Yale and was born in Shepherds' Field near Bethlehem.
A metal gate and watchtower along a segment of Israel's 25-foot-high seperation barrier near Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem. (Steve Sabella)
It is at Christmastime that the sometimes- beautiful and sometimes-poignant childhood memories of Bethlehem haunt me and other Palestinian Christians most vividly.
Born in Shepherd's Field near Bethlehem to a Lutheran mother and a Greek Orthodox father, I grew up feeling lucky because we celebrated two Christmases. The Christmas season was a time of family gatherings around kerosene heaters where our fingers were cold but our hearts were warm and stomachs full.
Today, Christmas is a time to reflect on the tragedy that has befallen this most famous of little towns. Israel militarily occupied Bethlehem in 1967, but the landscape had begun to change well before that. In 1948, Bethlehem became home to thousands of Palestinian refugees after more than 750,000 people were driven from their homes in what became Israel. Palestinians were forbidden to return, and the cramped refugee camps of Dheisheh and Aida on the outskirts of Bethlehem remain testaments to this nearly 60-year legacy of dispossession.
After 1967, Israel built new illegal settlements on annexed Palestinian public and agricultural lands and Israeli-only roads to connect these settlements to Israel and one another. We could do nothing but watch as increasing portions of our homeland became off-limits to Palestinians. The only forested region of East Jerusalem, Jabal Abu Ghneim -- where I used to picnic and walk almost daily -- became the Jewish settlement of Har Homa.
Today, Bethlehem is surrounded by the settlements of Gilo, Har Gilo, and a new settlement near Rachel's tomb. The tomb is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews but is now off limit to Palestinians, including relatives of the hundreds of Palestinian Muslims buried there.
Since 2002, Bethlehemites have faced the enormous human costs of a massive, concrete segregation wall. During my visit last July, I noticed that the route of the wall zigzagged around Bethlehem, placing fertile Palestinian agricultural lands on the "Israeli side" of the wall. The wall went straight through centuries-old villages - separating Palestinian families from each other and from their jobs, hospitals, schools, churches and mosques.
Many of my relatives have lost jobs in Jerusalem, a mere six miles away, because it is virtually impossible for West Bank Palestinians to obtain permits to enter Jerusalem. Even with a permit, checkpoints make travel unpredictable and often impossible, precluding reliable work attendance. Although I have an American passport, I am denied entry to East Jerusalem, where I taught high school. At Bethlehem University, where my brother has taught mathematics for 25 years, the wall and checkpoints mean many faculty and students can no longer make it to school. The biblical and literal path from Nazareth to Bethlehem is blocked by checkpoints and thirty-foot high slabs of concrete.
I am saddened when I see how Bethlehem has been transformed. A once-thriving community is stifled, isolated and desperate. Tourism has plummeted, jobs are scarce and Christian Palestinian families are leaving. At Christmastime, typically a period of joy and hope, this grim reality hits especially hard.
Israel's desire to acquire maximum geography with minimum Palestinian demography is the root of the suffering afflicting the Holy Land. Amnesty International has observed that the peace processes failed because Israel has ignored human rights, including the right of native Palestinians to return to their homes and lands. There is now a broad international consensus (with the exceptions of the US and Israeli governments) on the danger to international peace and security posed by Israel's continued violations of human rights and international law.
Although Israel's actions are given diplomatic and financial cover by my adopted country of America, I feel hopeful. Jimmy Carter's new book "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid" marks the first time a major US politician recognized publicly the reality of discrimination against the Christians and Muslims of Palestine. The Iraq study group has recommended resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as critical to regional stability. People are increasingly pausing to reconsider the value of our government's unconditional support for Israel. We need our politicians to follow suit. In this season celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, let us all resolve to pray and work for justice in the holiest of lands.
May this holiday season and the new year bear the fruits of the collective hard work for peace with justice to all people.
Israel's Purging of Palestinian Christians
By JONATHAN COOK
January 9, 2007
"....Foreign visitors can leave, while Bethlehem's Palestinians are now sealed into their ghetto. As long as these Palestinian cities are not turned into death camps, the West appears ready to turn a blind eye. Mere concentration camps, it seems, are acceptable...."
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming "Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State" published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press. His website is www.jkcook.net
Latest News, Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign
November 7th, 2006
As Occupation bulldozers continue to devastate fields in South Bethlehem, the farmers in Jurat ash-Shama have stood up in defense of their livelihoods in spontaneous protests.
Occupation bulldozers have recently started uprooting wide tracts of land planted with grapes and olive trees belonging to the inhabitants of Jurat ash-Shama. These lands are the key source of income for the farmers. According to the village council, a large Occupation force consisting of soldiers and bulldozers attacked the south side of the village and began uprooting the trees that grow close to the colony of Efrata, built on Juat ash-Shamaâ€™s land.
This latest attack was undertaken in order to complete the path of the Wall which extends from Beit Sahour in the east to the north of Bethlehem and from Beit Jala in the west until al-Khader and on to Beit Fajjar to the south of Bethlehem. Encompassing both Zionist colonies and illegally annexed Palestinian land, the Wall serves to Judaize Jerusalem while cutting Palestinians off from their livelihoods and their capital.
When the bulldozers rolled in, hundreds of farmers from the village rushed to their fields and protested the illegal confiscation of land by the occupation forces. The farmers refused to leave their land, blocking bulldozers and occupation forces. In retaliation, soldiers started to beat the farmers and to indiscriminately shoot tear gas into the crowd. Finally, in an act that characterizes the aggressive nature of the Occupation, the soldiers invaded Jurat ash-Shama to the last house.
The struggle of the farmers will continue. Village land does not exceeded 1300 dunums, and the Wall is to be constructed on 388 dunums and will isolate another 750 dunums. To exist is to resist
Cynical House bill feigns concern over Palestinian Christians
June 15th, 2006
On the left is the Church of the Nativity where Palestinian Christians worship. Across the square is Omar's Mosque where Palestinian Muslims pray.
Palestinian Christians say the bill masks the real problem in Palestine: The Israeli occupation
By Gale Courey Toensing
In the spring of 2002 when Israeli Occupation Forces laid siege with tanks, machine guns and other weapons of targeted destruction to the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, there was not a squeak of protest from Congress about protecting Palestinian Christians and the holy places of Christianity.
Now, in a triple whammy attempt to demonize Muslims, destroy Hamas, and pit Palestinian Muslims against Palestinian Christians, cynics and hypocrites in the House of Representatives are hawking a bill that purports to be based on concern about the plight of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.
Hamas, readers will recall, is the political party that won an overwhelming majority of seats in the Palestinian Authority, Palestine's legislature. Both Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims voted en masse for Hamas in a democratic election that former President Jimmy Carter, an election monitor, described in the Herald Tribune, as "honest, fair, strongly contested, without violence and with the results accepted by winners and losers."
The results, however, did not please the Bush administration, which has labeled Hamas as a "terrorist organization," or Congress, which is only too willing to be swayed by the powerful Israel lobby that puts a lot of money in members' campaign coffers, and targets for defeat any elected official who dares to speak out against Israel's policies.
The House of Representative's resolution, called "Condemning the Persecution of Palestinian Christians by the Palestinian Authority," was authored by Reps. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). "Palestinian Authority" has become the code word for "Hamas."
The bill is nothing less than a racist screed against Palestinian Muslims – and, by extension, Muslims everywhere. And, in formulating their baseless allegations, McCaul and Crowley do exactly what they accuse Palestinian Muslims of doing: They incite violence and religious hatred against Muslims and Islam.
In psychology, that kind of neurotic behavior is called projection.
The resolution alleges that the PA uses "violent rhetoric" which has "increased incitement toward Palestinian Christian communities; that "Islamic law" puts Christians at a disadvantage judicially; that Christians "are forced to follow Islamic law in public or face arrest by Palestinian Authority police"; and that the PA violates Christians' human rights.
It also claims that the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat "gerrymandered the municipal boundaries" of Bethlehem to include more Muslims. This allegation is laughable for two reasons: The 2006 general elections were the first to be held since 1996 and no "redistricting" took place in the interim. And the allegation may indicate a serious case of irony deficiency in McCaul, a member of the Texas legislature, which, led by indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, redistricted Texas to gain Republican voters.
The specious allegations go on and on: Muslims "effectively cleansed" Christians from the government; denied them jobs; forced them to pay extra taxes. "Muslim extremists and criminals" "vandalize and desecrate internationally-recognized holy sites and cemeteries" with impunity; rape and sexually harass Christian women; force Christians to leave the country.
The resolution is one more assault against the Hamas government and the pitifully battered Palestinian people, whose only "crimes" are to insist on their national, civil and human rights, and to have had the nerve to democratically elect a government that is not to the liking of President Bush, the Israel lobby, and its supporters in Congress.
The US-led aid boycott and restrictions that have been in place for more than three months are now pushing the population to the brink of starvation, according to humanitarian and human rights organizations. The recently House-approved, hideously-named "Palestinian Anti-Terrorist Act," which passed by a lopsided vote of 361 to 37, was so draconian that even the Bush administration opposed it.
McCaul's and Crowley's allegations are demonstrably not true, of course. What is so appalling is Congress's utter ignorance of history and of what is actually happening on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, and their total indifference to the suffering of millions of ordinary Palestinian men, women, and children. There is no mention in McCaul's and Crowley's resolution of Israel's ongoing brutal occupation of Palestinian lands – an equal opportunity violation of several international laws that oppresses Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike.
Open Bethlehem, a nonprofit international project created in 2005 to save the city of Bethlehem, says the resolution is "grossly misleading" and misrepresents the reality of all Palestinians' lives. The organization has its headquarters inside Bethlehem University with offices in London and Washington.
On June 13, Open Bethlehem CEO Leila Sansour wrote to each member of Congress, urging them not to sign the bill.
"We are encouraged by the latest interest of Congress in the plight of the world's oldest Christian community," Sansour wrote.
"We are, however, disappointed by the latest resolution drafted by congressmen McCaul and congressman Crowley purporting to act on our behalf… The resolution seriously misrepresents the situation facing Christians in the Holy Land… The resolution grossly misleads the Congress as to the real threat that faces our community," Sansour wrote.
While it is true that 357 Christian families – 10 percent of the Christian population – have emigrated from Bethlehem between the years 2000-2004, Sansour said, it is not Palestinian Muslims who are driving them out.
"This flight is primarily a result of the fear generated by repeated Israeli military incursions, and has been exacerbated by the economic devastation of Bethlehem due to the Israel closure imposed on the city," Sansour said.
The Apartheid Wall, Israel's newest and perhaps most perverse expression of unrestrained power, symbolizes Israel's military occupation and control over all Palestinians, regardless of their religion.
"Perhaps the Israeli barrier is most emblematic of the shared fate of both Muslims and Christian Palestinians. The Bethlehem barrier winding in and around our city consists mainly of 25-fott high slabs of concrete, sniper towers, and remote-controlled infantry positions. It is built on privately-owned Palestinian land, resulting in the loss of most of Bethlehem's fertile and economically prosperous agricultural lands and many of our major landmarks. . . It has also severed our city from Jerusalem, a city with which we have historically enjoyed interdependent kinship, trade, and social relations," Sansour said.
The aim of Open Bethlehem, Sansour said, "is to ensure that our community survives in the birthplace of Christianity, as part of a diverse, multi-faith society that will be an essential pillar of an open and democratic Middle East."
Sansour notes that the resolution was written without consulting Christians living in Palestine or local Christian organizations. In asking members of Congress to reject the resolution, she also urges them of form a fact-finding mission to Bethlehem in August "to learn first hand about the challenges that we face."
If you are concerned – or outraged – by Congress's willingness to impose more suffering on the powerless Palestinian population, contact your representatives and other elected officials and tell them to vote against this shameful piece of legislation. Use http://congress.cfl-online.org/
Christmas against the Apartheid Wall
Worldwide Activism, Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, December 16th, 2006
Each year before Christmas, believers and activists alike take the occasion to raise awareness about the occupation of Palestine, in particular its devastating effects on Bethlehem.
Above: "This way to Bethlehem" - the provocative banner blocking the bypasers in front of a wall is part of the Christmas installation at the Catholic church in St. Ives. This year, the Sacred Heart Catholic church in St Ives, UK, has cancelled its famous Christmas "Live Crib" event. Instead of actors reenacting Christmas night, a life-size replica of the Apartheid Wall has been constructed in front of the church bearing protest banners and photographs showing the reality of Israeli occupation. (See full press release below.)
In recent years various churches have focused on the Israeli occupation; replica walls are included along with the cribs and at times replace them entirely. An effective tool for raising awareness and expressing visible support for the Palestinian struggle, it is time that the replicas spread throughout the churches until Bethlehem – and with it Palestine – is free.
In Washington, an ad hoc committee for Bethlehem has been founded to organize a Christmas Procession for Bethlehem. On Saturday, 23rd of December at 4 pm, all those standing in solidarity with Palestine are called to gather at Lafayette Park to join a powerful procession around the White House and National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse. Mary and Joseph, complete with a donkey, will lead the candle light procession.
The PSC UK is preparing for a Christmas Carol, along with other initiatives, as an expression of solidarity with Palestine.
Laila Sansour from www.OpenBethlehem.org declared: ""Our town has become a prison for those of us who live here; our livelihoods have been strangled by the Israeli wall and the restrictions on movement, which have severed the arteries which for centuries have sustained our little town. It is right that Christians should know this, and that their prayers in this season be directed towards the many people suffering dire poverty in Bethlehem as a consequence of the Israeli occupation...Bethlehem needs the world, and the world needs Bethlehem. We must not let the wall separate us."
Catholic Church cancels Christmas Crib
The Sacred Heart Catholic church in St Ives has cancelled its annual ‘Live Crib' event in protest against the Israeli wall being built around the holy city of Bethlehem. In place of crib, there will be erected a life-size replica portion of the Israeli concrete blockade that is causing untold suffering to the ordinary citizens of the city. The wall will stand as a symbol of the plight of these ‘abandoned' people.
In addition, large protest banners and stark photographs will stand alongside the ‘wall' to show passers-by how desperate and ugly the situation is in the Holy Land.
Father Paul is confident that the people of St Ives will want to express their support for these people at Christmas. "The lives of the ordinary citizens of Bethlehem have been devastated by the building of the wall. It affects every aspect of their lives: friends and family are separated, earning a living becomes more and more difficult, and access to health care is severely restricted in the town of Bethlehem, which we sing about at this time of the year. If we can provide these people with a few extra basic provisions and give them a little financial support, we can help make their lives more bearable."
• The wall will be approximately 30 ft high.
• It will be erected on Friday 15th December, and will be taken down on Wednesday 27th December.
• Father Paul Maddison and some parishioners, who have visited and seen the wall, will be available for interview at 10 am on Friday 15th outside the church as the wall is being erected.
• Donations to help alleviate the suffering of the citizens of Bethlehem can be put through the letter box of the Catholic Presbytery, 19 Needingworth Road, St Ives
• People wishing to donate are also invited to send donations via: Holy Land 2003, PO Box 140, St Ives PE27 9AP (cheques made payable to Holy Land 2006)
• All donations will be used to provide food and medical assistance to the citizens of Bethlehem.
The Church of the Sacred Heart in St Ives is twinned with the Catholic parish in Aboud Village on the West Bank. Since 2003, Father Maddison, along with groups from St Ives and other places in East Anglia, has made regular visits to take donations and lend support to the Aboud villagers, who are Christians and Muslims. He has seen first-hand the suffering and increasingly worsening plight of the families who live there.
The concrete wall has been built though farmland and villages:
• wrecking livelihoods that depend on farming the ‘stolen' land,
• making daily life a misery for those people who have to cross the wall to go to work
• costing the lives of patients who have sought urgent medical attention on the ‘other side', only to be delayed unnecessarily
• causing untold poverty to thousands, who cannot raise enough money to feed, clothe and educate their families.
FOR MORE INFORMATION AND INTERVIEWS
Contact: Father Paul Maddison, Parish Priest
Telephone: 01480 462192
Address: Sacred Heart RC Church, 19 Needingworth Road, St Ives, Cambs
Fight Erupts in D.C. Over Plight of Palestinian Christians
Ori Nir | Fri. Jun 23, 2006
WASHINGTON — A battle has erupted on Capitol Hill over who should be blamed for the plight of Palestinian Christians: Israel or the Palestinian Authority.
All sides agree that the Christian community in the West Bank faces existential threats and is dwindling, from 20% of the population 50 years to about 1.5% today. They bitterly disagree, however, about who should be held responsible for the decline.
Some argue that the continuing burden of Israel's occupation is the main culprit; others contend that it is the Palestinian Authority that is mainly responsible, because it allegedly engages in religious discrimination and turns a blind eye to the harassment and persecution of Christians.
The debate itself is not new. Israel and some of its advocates in the United States have in the past fended off accusations regarding the negative impact on Christians of Israeli policies in the West Bank by arguing that intra-Palestinian tensions play a more decisive role in pushing Palestinian Christians to leave the territories. This time around, however, the tussle is taking place on Capitol Hill, with Palestinian Christian activists and their backers attempting to rally the White House for help, and pro-Israel forces trying to leverage government support through legislation.
The battle erupted last month, when the powerful chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, sent a letter to President Bush, warning that "Israeli actions [in the West Bank] seem to go beyond the realm of legitimate security concerns and have negative consequences on communities and lands under their [sic] occupation." Hyde wrote that while America should support Israel's self-defense, it is "important that United States' support for Israel not be perceived as involving the affirmation of injustice."
Days after the letter was sent, an aide to Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, drafted a resolution blasting the P.A. over the plight of Christians in the territories. The resolution, which makes no attempt to place any degree of blame on Israel, calls on the president and the secretary of state "to address the condition of minorities under Palestinian Authority rule in order to save from destruction the oldest Christian community in the world." It also urges the State Department to "investigate and report on the extent of human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority" against Palestinian Christians.
American and Palestinian Christians say that they were not consulted about the proposed resolution. They also point out that it was drafted with the help of an Israeli lawyer, and they say that the current version of the text is marked by distortions and misinformation.
Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, also sponsors the resolution. So far, staffers for Crowley and McCaul — both members of the House International Relations Committee, chaired by Hyde — have recruited more than 20 co-sponsors, including the chair of the House's subcommittee on the Middle East and the lead candidate to succeed Hyde, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, and the committee's minority leader, Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat.
Opponents of the resolution, including Christian groups in the United States and in the West Bank, say that the two congressional aides who prepared the bill, Ari Stein of McCaul's office and Gregg Sheiowitz of Crowley's office, never consulted any American Christian groups or activists who assist Palestinian Christians. Nor did they talk to any Palestinian Christians, critics said.
The two staffers refused to talk with the Forward on the record, but congressional aides familiar with the bill confirmed that no Christian groups or activists — whether in America or in the West Bank — were consulted. After the two circulated the draft resolution and a "Dear Colleague" letter to House members, urging them to co-sponsor the bill, several American Christian groups, including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, called and met with Crowley and McCaul's staffers, protesting the resolution and the manner in which it was drafted.
Opponents contend that the factual basis of the legislation is flawed. For example, they challenged the bill's claims that "Palestinian Christians are forced to follow Islamic law in public or face arrest by Palestinian Authority police"; that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority's late president, and his supporters "effectively cleansed the [P.A.'s] bureaucracy of Christians"; that "Palestinian Christians are denied jobs in state-run organizations"; that "Palestinian Christians are accused of being Israeli and American collaborators and are interrogated and imprisoned without reason"; that the Palestinian police do not respond to harassment complaints made by Palestinian Christians, and that the unpunished violence toward Christians "has led to a significant increase in pervasive sexual harassment and rape."
Daphne Tsimhoni, a professor at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and a leading scholar on Christian minorities in the Middle East, told the Forward that almost all the bill's assertions are either exaggerations, misrepresentations or sheer fabrications.
The aides to McCaul and Crowley told fellow congressional staffers that their main source of information was several reports and articles by Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli lawyer. Weiner works for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a right-of-center think-tank. Dore Gold, who was a political adviser to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and previously served as Israel's permanent representative to the United Nations, directs the center.
Weiner has written extensively in the past about human rights violations of Christians in the West Bank, faulting the Palestinian society and the Palestinian government for their plight. Some scholars, including Tsimhoni, Palestinian Christians and American Christian groups, have challenged his research. Congressional aides closely familiar with the legislation said that Weiner helped draft the bill. Weiner confirmed to the Forward that he had "seen a draft [of the bill] at one point or another."
Palestinian Christians and pro-Palestinian activists say that although there may have been isolated incidents of harassment of Palestinian Christians by Palestinian Muslims, and although Palestinian Christians are concerned by the rise to power of militant Islamists in the West Bank, the attempt to portray these phenomena as a systematic pattern of persecution of Christians by the P.A. is absurd.
"This, to me, is like trying to drown a fish in water," said Afif Safieh, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization's mission to Washington. Safieh, a Roman Catholic with scores of relatives in the West Bank, said that the incidents of which he is aware are ones that can be attributed to "lawlessness from which the entire population suffers." He added that the PLO always has been "extremely open-minded and fair toward the Christian community."
Christians, he said, are overrepresented in the Palestinian political system and in the P.A.'s bureaucracy. He added that, despite his political differences with the ruling militant Hamas organization, he must admit that the Islamist movement has not taken any steps to discriminate against Christians and has not imposed Islamic law.
"Hamas has not annoyed or disturbed Palestinian Christians," he said.
Pressure by pro-Palestinian groups to "nip this legislation in the bud," in the words of James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, is showing some signs of success.
Congressional aides familiar with the legislation say that the bill's drafters now realize they erred by not consulting Christian groups, and that their resolution may contain some factual errors. They pointed out that the bill is still in draft form and has not yet been submitted. Its sponsors intend to do so soon.
They said that comments by church groups as well as by pro-Palestinian activists could be taken into account to address inaccuracies before final language is submitted.
The dispute over Palestinian Christians is now playing out over another piece of legislation. Critics of Israel's West Bank policies are blocking a resolution pushed by the Orthodox Union, marking the 39th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. The same critics object to an assertion in the bill, which says that Jerusalem is "a unified city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected."
The question of whether Palestinian Christians have the freedom to access their places of worship in and around Jerusalem is of particular concern to Hyde.
Hyde attached a copy of a report prepared by his staff to his May 19 letter to Bush, documenting the alleged impact of Israel's security barrier in and around Christian population centers, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The report was based on a series of visits by Hyde's staff to Israel and the West Bank over the past two years. Specifically, the report talks about sections of the barrier being built on Palestinian Christian land, the inability of Palestinian Christians to access their places of worship because of Israeli travel restrictions, and the Israeli government's backing of aggressive attempts by militant Jewish settlers to move into the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City and into other predominantly Christian parts of Jerusalem.
Hyde's letter was private, but it became very public when syndicated columnist Robert Novak quoted from it extensively in a May 23 column. Novak has written about the issue in the past, but this column was particularly embarrassing for several reasons, Israeli diplomats said. It came as American Christian groups were discussing divestment from Israel to protest its policies in the West Bank. It also was sent days before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington. Novak suggested in his column that the issue be discussed during Olmert's White House meeting with the president. According to sources close to Olmert, it was not; however, in recent weeks the White House has expressed interest in Hyde's report. Earlier this month, a senior official in Vice President Dick Cheney's office met with Hyde's staffers and promised to follow up on the matter.