Recently I asked Dominique Najjar, a Palestinian Christian who lives with his wife and children in Minneapolis, why so many Palestinians are leaving Palestine. He told me the story of how he and two of his three brothers, all aspiring professionals, immigrated to the United States from East Jerusalem out of “economic necessity,” starting in the early 1970s. “My parents needed support,” he said, explaining that economic advancement was impossible under Israeli control. This took place within the first decade of the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which began after the 1967 war and is illegal under international law.
But there is more to Mr. Najjar’s story. He and one of his brothers did not intend to emigrate permanently from their homeland. After they had moved to the United States, however, Israel revoked their Jerusalem residency status. Now they are given 90-day tourist visas when they return to their hometown, where their 89-year-old mother lives alone. Since none of her seven adult children enjoys residency status in Jerusalem any longer, none can do more than visit her. She receives daily “compassion and attention” from her Muslim neighbors next door. Najjar remarked that the revocation of his residency status is “all part of the Israeli effort to minimize the number of non-Jews in Jerusalem.”
It is difficult for citizens of other countries to appreciate what the occupation means for Palestinians who are not citizens of the country that rules them (unlike Israeli Palestinians who live in the recognized State of Israel). A reading of the 30 articles of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) reveals that very few of these rights are applied to occupied Palestinians. Directly relevant to Mr. Najjar’s story, for example, Article 13 (2) states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” People of conscience are faced with the oppression of an indigenous population in their own homeland, and Christians worldwide must confront the truth that Palestinian Christians are walking down a long Via Dolorosa from which, without international intervention, the only exit is exile.
Indigenous Christians have lived in Palestine since the origins of Christianity about 2,000 years ago. Over the centuries other Christians immigrated to Palestine. Palestinian Christians comprised at least 15 percent of the Palestinian population in the late 19th century, under Ottoman Muslim rule, and about 7.5 percent by 1944, in the final years of the British Mandate. During the 1948 war, which resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel in much of historic Palestine, more than a third of Palestinian Christians were among the 750,000 to 800,000 refugees forced to flee their homes in Palestine. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has described Israel’s “war of independence,” which Palestinians call the nakba (catastrophe), as “the ethnic cleansing of Palestine” in his book by that title published in 2006.
The Lydda Death March
Audeh Rantisi, a Palestinian Christian, has written in The Link, a journal published by Americans for Middle East Understanding,about his family’s expulsion from Lydda, near Tel Aviv, in July 1948, along with that of thousands of other residents. An 11-year-old at the time, Rantisi witnessed: an infant being crushed to death by a cart after his mother lost hold of him, an Israeli soldier shooting to death a newly married young man who would not hand over his money, people dying of thirst and many more horrors. He reports that “scores of women miscarried, their babies left for jackals to eat.” On the fourth day of the “Lydda death march,” his 13-member family reached Ramallah, in the West Bank, “carrying nothing but the clothes we wore.” His father also took with him the key to their house. Generations of the Rantisi family had lived in Lydda for some 1,600 years.
Mr. Pappé is not alone among scholars who have identified a Zionist ideology of exclusion as the engine driving the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 or who have interpreted Israeli policy since then as a continuing campaign of ethnic cleansing. By 2011 the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip had reached its 44th year. In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the occupation has brought the construction of scores of “settlements” in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which currently house at least half a million Israeli settlers. Five years ago Israel had already expropriated 87 percent of East Jerusalem and 75 percent of the West Bank for settlements, parks and military areas. Thus less and less Palestinian land is available for Palestinian housing, agriculture or other uses. Human rights abuses of Palestinians abound under the occupation, which appears designed to make their lives so unbearable that they will “voluntarily” leave.
The emigration of Palestinian Christians from the occupied territories to the West since 1967 has also reduced their number to the point where Christians currently account for less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population under occupation. And the rate of population growth for Palestinian Christians in the West Bank amounts to just half of their emigration rate. Without a stabilization or reversal of the net decline, the extinction of Palestinian Christians in the territories is conceivable. Even in 2006 only about 50,000 Palestinian Christians were living in the West Bank and Gaza.
What explains the ongoing exodus of Christians from Palestine? Some attempts at an explanation are misleading. In line with the Islamophobia notable in Europe and in the United States, Israeli propaganda points to tension and conflict with Palestinian Muslims, who comprise more than 98 percent of the Palestinian population under occupation, as the key reason for Palestinian Christian emigration. Israel has long encouraged political and religious division among Palestinians. Yet when I interviewed the Christian Palestinian secretary general of the East Jerusalem Y.W.C.A. in June 2009, she said that relations between Palestinian Muslims and Christians have been and remain largely positive. In her view “religious extremism” has been fostered by the environment of stress, chaos and conflict produced by the Israeli occupation. Indeed, there is a long history of good relations between Palestinian Muslims and Christians. Palestinians of both faiths experienced the catastrophe of 1948 together, and since 1967 those in the West Bank and Gaza have experienced the catastrophe of the Israeli occupation together.
‘Pull’ and ‘Push’ Factors
Palestinian Christians have tended to be well educated, relatively advantaged economically and more likely than their Muslim counterparts to have contacts in the West. Those could be considered “pull” factors behind the Palestinian Christian exodus. The “push” factors are the economic, political and social consequences of the Israeli occupation, with its “apartheid wall,” checkpoints and segregated road system; its ever-expanding settlements, destruction of Palestinian agriculture and demolition of Palestinian homes; its lawless, weapon-toting settlers; and its incarceration, with systematic torture, of thousands of Palestinians.
A 2006 survey of Palestinian Christians conducted by the Palestinian Christian peace organization Sabeel confirms the decisive influence of these “push” factors. Romell Soudah, a faculty member in business administration at Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution, writes that “the continuous confiscation of land...coupled with restrictions on mobility and access, give the impression that people are living in a cage, dehumanized, with little hope for freedom and normal living. This situation...is the primary factor…forcing Christian Palestinians to leave.” These Israeli actions, plus water confiscation and economic strangulation, which drive unemployment and poverty levels upward, are seen as calculated means of emptying the land of Palestinians. Thus Christian Palestinian emigration is the most visible effect of Israel’s deliberate, if gradual, ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population.
Why should Americans care if Palestinian Christians in the West Bank are leaving their homeland twice as fast as their population there is growing? The erasure of native Christians from Palestine should be unthinkable. Palestine is where Christianity originated, and Palestinian Christians have a unique status in the worldwide Christian community. Americans should be outraged that U.S. policy, buttressed by generous funding from their tax dollars, makes possible the Israeli occupation and its discriminatory policies.
These policies include a campaign to revoke the time-honored tax-exempt status of Christian churches and other Christian institutions, like the Lutheran Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, and prohibition of access to holy sites (for example, barring West Bank Christians from visiting the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally regarded as the burial place of Jesus, in Jerusalem’s Old City). Orthodox Jewish harassment of Christian clergy in the Old City is commonplace. Hanan Chehata, a journalist, reports that “numerous churches have been destroyed during Israeli military incursions, divided from their congregations by the wall, and exposed to dilapidation.” Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity suffered physical damage during the Israeli incursion and siege of 2002. The wall now encircles Bethlehem, separating it from nearby Jerusalem; residents of Bethlehem are prevented from entering Jerusalem and vice versa. A majority of Bethlehem’s Christians hold Israel responsible for the departure of record numbers of Palestinian Christians from their city.
Yet Western Christians often fail to recognize the imperiled existence of their Palestinian co-religionists. Moreover, there are millions of Christian Zionists whose interpretation of New Testament prophecies allies them with Israeli Zionism and against the Christians of Palestine. They imagine that there is serious division between Palestinian Muslims and Christians, whereas the far more prevalent tension is between Palestinian Christians and some Israeli Jews (settlers, military and government leaders or those who represent them). The continued presence of Palestinian Christians in Palestine offsets the misperception that the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is really about relig ion—a conflict between Muslims and Jews, rather than one about land, human rights and international law.
A Palestinian Christian friend wrote to me recently regarding the typical pattern of Muslims and Christians working together cooperatively and harmoniously within Palestinian institutions and organizations. Among the examples she mentioned is the Rawdat El-Zuhur (Garden of Flowers) elementary school in East Jerusalem, which has a Christian principal, a Muslim accountant, a mixed teaching staff and a mixed student body. Rawdat El-Zuhur, she wrote, “serves the community irrespective of [the members’] faith.” Likewise at Birzeit University, north of Ramallah, the president is Muslim and the chairman of the board is Christian; the board members are mixed, as are the staff and the student body.
To their credit, Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, are prominent among church leaders who have advocated worldwide Christian solidarity with Palestinian Christians. Informed American Christians committed to peace with justice are called to stand up both to Christian Zionism and to U.S. government underwriting of the illegal Israeli military occupation that is driving Palestinians, and disproportionately Christian Palestinians, out of their native country. In the prophetic words of the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
View a slideshow of Palestinian Christian life.