For Palestinians, Christmas 2000 was to have been a celebration not only of the second millennium of Jesus’ birth, in which they would play host to the Christian world. It also was to have marked the emergence of Palestine as a destination for world travel with Bethlehem as its center. The World Bank and donor countries had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into David’s city to repair the long neglected infrastructure and to construct new facilities to receive the millions of pilgrims expected to mark the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 in the Holy Land.
Even before Ariel Sharon, in the company of 1,000 troops, visited the Haram al Sharif, which Jews call the Temple Mount, in late September, the number of pilgrims had fallen short of expectations, partly because of the anxiety spurred by the collapse of the Camp David talks at the end of July. By Christmas Eve, with a cold rain falling, only small knots of foreign pilgrims and local worshipers were to be found in Manger Square. The millennial crowds never appeared, intimidated by the Palestinian intifada and the punishing Israeli retaliation against the uprising. Foreign entertainers canceled their programs, and the residents of Bethlehem and their neighbors wanted to mourn the 350 Palestinians killed and the thousands wounded rather than to celebrate.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Bethlehem and the neighboring towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour had been particularly hard hit. On Dec. 11 the Latin (Roman Catholic) seminary in Beit Jala was the center of a three-hour barrage by Israeli gunners. In addition to the seminary, the neighboring rectory and parish house were damaged. During the same week the Orthodox churches of Saint Nicholas and Saint Michael in Bethlehem, the oldest churches in the town after the Church of the Nativity, were also hit by shelling.
In the West these attacks went unnoticed, even after statesmen and religious leaders had wrung their hands for weeks over the need to respect holy sites and prevent a nationalist conflict from exploding into a holy war. Local Christians were trapped in a classic double bind. They did not want their homes and churches subject to Israeli shelling, but neither did they want to appear to flag in their allegiance to the Palestinian cause. So they made no special pleas for immunity for themselves and their institutions. Under the laws of war, of course, civilians are supposed to be immune from attack. The Israeli Defense Force should have taken measures to reduce the impact on noncombatants, and is forbidden from reprisals that take indiscriminate aim at civilian areas.
It is fairly widely acknowledged that the gunmen who used the Christian triangleBeit Sahour, Bethlehem and Beit Jala just south of Jerusalemfor cover, thereby inviting Israeli counterattacks, were not local. Some observers claimed they came from nearby refugee camps, others that they were Fatah militia, others that they were Israeli provocateurs. Each allegation had a plausible basis. Hard facts are difficult to find.
In the early, chaotic days of the Al Aqsa intifada, it seemed plausible that the gunmen might be disgruntled refugees who did not give a whit for the relatively affluent residents of the Christian towns. They were angry at the Israelis, but they may also have borne resentment over the comfort and relative freedom of their neighbors.
Honest observers acknowledge that President Arafat did not have full control over the intifada. The degree of influence he was able to exercise over the course of the uprising remains unclear. Twice when local leaders petitioned him, however, such as in the days immediately before Christmas, sniper fire from the Bethlehem area into Israel abated and with it the withering Israeli counterattacks. At other times, Arafat seemed not to be successful in controlling the gunmen. Perhaps the decline in incidents had as much to do with local understandings as orders from Gaza.
The argument for provocateurs is also plausible. The Israelis themselves have effectively used snipers to take out ringleaders in confrontation with Israeli troops. Both Time magazine and Israeli journalists, such as Uri Avinery, have identified sniper fire as an approved I.D.F. method for suppressing the uprising. Despite lethally effective use of snipers against rioting crowds, including innocent bystanders, the I.D.F. sharpshooters have not killed one Palestinian marksman. Instead the Israelis have employed a variety of tactics against the civilian populations of the three towns of the Bethlehem enclave, particularly Beit Jala. For from Beit Jala, Palestinian gunmen were able to fire into the neighboring Israeli settlement of Gilo recently erected on land confiscated from the Palestinian municipality.
The Israelis have demonstrated some restraint. They have not invaded Area A, the populated areas under full Palestinian control. They sometimes gave warning of their attacks so families had time to flee to safety. Sometimes they lobbed only a symbolic shell or two. At other times they would fire only concussion grenades, calculated to keep people on edge. Overall, however, their retaliatory attacks took a large toll on the Christian inhabitants of the Bethlehem area. Hundreds of homes have been damaged and people made homeless under conditions where there are no surplus resources with which to rebuild.
Both Palestinians and Israelis appear to have played the Christian card in an attempt to gather the sympathy of the Christian world for their side and to stigmatize the other as victimizer of Christian populations. By drawing disproportionate Israeli fire on the Christian towns, Palestinian fighters are believed to have sought to elicit sympathy for the Palestinian cause. By circulating reports of Christian flight from the Bethlehem area, the Israelis attempted to rouse world opinion against Palestinian tactics and perhaps, on a small scale, to accelerate Christian flight, much as Israeli propaganda had provoked Palestinian flight in 1948.
The reports of alleged Christian departures were one of the stranger episodes in this conflict. Reports in The Jerusalem Post of a rapid rise in Christian emigration from the Bethlehem area were attributed to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. When questioned, the ministry referred to communications with foreign embassies and consulates that supposedly pointed to a rapid rise in applications for visas from Palestinians in the Bethlehem area. Calls to embassies from church officials failed to verify the Israeli allegations. Knowledgeable expatriates, including experienced journalists, also failed to corroborate the stories.
The propaganda offensive over Christian emigration was yet another instance in which the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak has mishandled relations with Christians. In each case, the government has maneuvered events in directions contrary to Christian interests, often, it would appear, out of short-term political motives. After years of controversy and face-to-face pleas from Pope John Paul II, the government moved ahead in October with plans to construct a mosque adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Both inside and outside Israel, Arabs see the mosque as a tactic of divide-and-conquer. The most recent steps came at a time when Israeli Arabs had become united in support of the intifada. Renewed Israeli support for the mosque appears to be calculated to divide not only Christians from Muslims but also Muslim from Muslim. One consequence of such a move would be to mute support for the intifada among Israel’s own Arab population.
In another move, as part of his now abandoned secularization program, Barak abolished the Office of Christian Community Affairs that had been part of the much-criticized Religious Affairs Ministry. Mr. Uri Mor, then director of the office, who was due to retire, offered to stay on without pay to continue services to the Christian communities until new arrangements could be made. He was told his job was at an end and that other arrangements would be made within weeks to handle the needs of the Christian communities. Subsequently the intifada broke out, and Mr. Barak abandoned his secularization program. As a result, the government no longer has an office to work with the Christian communities and lacks any real expertise on Christian affairs.
Another irritant has been the lack of police protection for Arab Christians. The failure of police to respond to Christians in trouble has been a problem in Galilee since Easter of two years ago. High-ranking police sources have told church contacts that police inaction would not have occurred without orders from above. There was more evidence of police indifference in the second week of the Al Aqsa intifada. At that time Jewish mobs from Nazaret Ilit attacked poor Arab areas of Nazareth, and settlers from Pisgot Zev and Neve Yakov twice rampaged through the middle-class Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina in the suburbs of Jerusalem. The Israeli press and a few public figures, to their credit, were vigorous in their criticism of both the mobs and the police, calling these episodes reminiscent of a pogrom.
The shelling of the Christian enclave around Bethlehem, the propaganda offensive over Christian emigration, the prolonged dispute over the Nazareth mosque, the abolition of the Office of Christian Community Affairs, the repeated lack of police protectionthese amount to a record of callous disregard toward Christians on the part of the Barak government. At the very least, the Barak government demonstrates profound insensitivity to Israeli Arab and Palestinian Christians. Even worse, one may reasonably discern a pattern of cynical exploitation of Christian vulnerabilities, whether for short-term political interests within Israel or perhaps as part of a much larger political game with the Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority has appeared to be more solicitous of Christian sensitivities. After Christian homes and businesses were mobbed in Gaza following an inflammatory sermon by a Muslim cleric, President Yasir Arafat ordered the rioters arrested and the Christian homes and businesses repaired. Israeli authorities took no comparable step after Jewish settlers attacked Beit Hanina or neighborhoods of Nazareth. On numerous issues, from the treatment of Christian history in the P.A.-approved school curriculum to the Nazareth mosque controversy, Arafat has responded energetically to Christian concerns. Problems remain, of course. The desecration of a Christian cemetery in Bethlehem in mid-December, perhaps too quickly attributed to Muslim militants, is now ascribed to unknown sources. All the same, the Palestinian Authority has tried to respond to the needs and sensitivities of its Christian population.
Considering the long list of worries, one would think that the shelling of the Christian towns would only magnify Christian Palestinians’ desire to escape. But in their quietly determined way, Palestinian Christians remain firm. Their commitment to the Palestinian cause remains constant. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem in his Christmas message announced, In this feast, we have one main wish: that Palestinian freedom be born.... Palestinians have been under Israeli military occupation for 33 years, and they say: Give us our freedom back.
In a statement on Nov. 9, the three Jerusalem patriarchs (Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian) declared, The church believes that it is the right as much as the duty of an occupied people to struggle against injustice in order to gain their freedom, although it also believes that non-violent means of struggle remain stronger and more efficient.
The commitment to nonviolence distinguishes the Christian leadership and a large number of Christians from the Palestinian majority. During the 1987-91 intifada, Beit Sahour was celebrated for its nonviolent tax revolt against Israeli occupation. A 1996 peace catechism from the Latin Patriarchate condemns terrorism as a crime. After the attacks on Beit Hanina, including vandalizing of Saint James Melkite Church, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah chose as his text in a service for Jerusalem Christians lines from Romans 12: Bless those who persecute; never curse them, bless them.... Never repay evil with evil.
Yet even Christians committed to nonviolence share the aims of the Al Aqsa intifada: an end to occupation, independence for Palestine and a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They share the perception of the Oslo Agreement as a flawed undertaking in which the Israelis used the interim process to grab land, build settlements, deprive Palestinians of resources, particularly water, and limit and control Palestinian ties to the wider world. They have endured with the rest of the population the deprivations brought by repeated closures and by Israeli control of economic life, as well as the daily humiliations imposed by the military and the bureaucracy. Their political unity with the Muslim majority is a result of years of shared suffering.
Christians must worry about the pattern of indifference to Christian concerns evinced by the overtly secular government of Ehud Barak, but they are by no means the special targets of Israeli animosity. It would appear that Israeli Arab and Palestinian Christians are simply expendable in terms of larger political goals, whether electoral politics in Galilee or the repression of the intifada in Bethlehem.
Israelis are an unsentimental people. Especially where minorities are concerned, their leaders grant favors only for hard political reasons. A sympathetic Israeli official once said to me: This [Barak] government knows nothing about Christians. They are politicians and they act solely for political motives. Israeli and Palestinian Christians are too small in number to have any political clout. Both in Israel and in Palestine they number about two percent of the total population. Political pressure, if it is to come, must come from the wider Christian world.
For Christians in the United States and elsewhere, the threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as directly from Israeli government policies, should matter greatly. Despite recurring persecution, the Christians of the Holy Land have endured for 2,000 years through the rise and fall of empires. They have preserved the holy places of Christianity for generations of pilgrims who have come to worship there and for waves of hermits, monks, nuns and scholars who have come to dwell and work among them. In their variety, they reveal the rich heritage of Oriental Christianity, and as Arabs they enjoy a special charism for relating Christianity to the Islamic world.
For Americans, there is an added reason to show special concern for the Holy Land’s Christians in their present plight. Namely, Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian problem were created with enormous political and financial support from the United States. The very least American Catholics and other American Christians can demand is that the Christian communities of the Holy Land be free to enjoy their civil rights as citizens of Israel and that Palestinian Christians have their human rights respected even in time of war. This applies especially to the immunity against military attack guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions.
Should the Holy Land’s Christians continue to suffer the loss of their rights to the point that the living Christian heritage is at risk of disappearing from the Holy Land, much of the burden for that unhappy outcome will belong to Americans. For their efforts on behalf of their fellow Christians will have failed to be as strong as their backing for the State of Israel. May history never record that American Christians failed to show the solidarity the Christians of the Holy Land need in this moment of crisis.