Bethlehem: Walled City
Christian Palestinians live in the midst of religious and political turmoil. They are like a drowning people grasping at straws. For decades they have been wedged between the Palestinian Moslem community and the Jewish state. Although some churches have caved in to pressure to make concessions in respect of the faith they profess, they continue to cause offence simply through their presence.
Since March 2001, I have watched as their situation has grown more distressing year by year. It is remarkable that, through the many frustrations and bitterness they have experienced, their determination has grown not to let the circumstances break their resolve. Since Hamas won the elections on 25 January, the position of Christian Palestinians has become worse than it was during the Second Intifada. I want to write about them, not only because this forgotten historical group deserves our attention, but also because their role in the pressurised society they inhabit has been given an unsought political dimension when the Gospel is understood as a call to peace and freedom. Through human history there has never been a dictator, an absolute ruler or a totalitarian political system that has not tried to silence the church or to remove its teeth by distorting the message of the Gospel.
A year ago, prof.dr. Raphaël Israeli from the Hebrew University, expert on christian communities in Israel end the territories, predicted that Christian Palestinians would disappear completely from the ‘territories’ within ten years. But those of them that do not emigrate even though they have the means to do so, the ones who have made a conscious decision to stay, hold a very different view of the future. They think that their presence makes a significant difference with respect to the quality of existence in Palestinian society. Primarily living and working in urban centres, they have traditionally worked in the health care sector and in education; they have managed hospitals and schools. They were therefore important purveyors of culture. Although they are now being pushed to the fringes of society because Moslems have largely taken over these functions in the West Bank, there are still several educational, social and cultural institutions that have retained a Christian character. And new ones have been established – i.e. Jemima, a home for handicapped children, and Beit Liqa (house of light), a social-cultural centre for children and adults. Both are located in the Bethlehem region.
A group whose numbers are rapidly declining – one and a half per cent of the Palestinian population is Christian (they used to make up 17 per cent) – a forgotten church with deep roots in the ‘Holy Land’. The Holy Land, as tour guides call it, encompasses a tract of earth impregnated with biblical names west of the river Jordan. A name that emphasises the unity, rather than the division of the country which is a centre of focus in both the Old and New Testaments. The Moslems, too, call this land ‘holy’. And although the different religious groups are divided, the ‘holy places’ are the chief means of support for all tour guides and the tourist industry.
On the grand political stage the Christians living in the West Bank are not a part of anyone’s equation. Not Israel’s, not the Western world’s. No distinction is made between Moslems and Christians; both groups are suspected of being ‘terrorists’. This is unfair in respect of the Moslems as a whole, and unjustified in respect of the Christians, who generally do not engage in politics and, if they do protest, do it non-violently. Yet the absence of this distinction is a blessing in disguise. Suppose the Christian leaders were given preferential treatment at military checkpoints and border posts (possessing papers that would allow them to travel within the occupied territories and to go to Jerusalem). If this were the case, they would run the risk of being identified with Christian Zionists, who are generally looked on with suspicion in the region because they support the land occupation politics of Israel. They would be blacklisted, their lives would be in danger. Yet, on the other side of the coin, Moslems that use military passes at the checkpoints are not held in suspicion by the general Moslem population.
During the Second Intifada, which broke out in response to the visit of Prime Minister Sharon to the Temple Mount in September 2000, Christian Palestinians had to accept that their houses and gardens had become targets for Israeli weapon fire. Against the will of these Christians, the young men of the Tanzim took up positions in their back gardens, shooting Kalashnikovs in the direction of Gilo. In response, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) riddled these houses a number of times with mortar fire from combat helicopters. For months, some families were forced to camp in tents set up next to their once grand, now battered homes in which several related families had lived. It took a long time before they were able to find somewhere else to live. Either family and friends took them in, or they lived in the tents for months. They received no compensation from Palestinian organisations and certainly had no chance of receiving compensation from the Israeli side. At the time they were under attack, our Palestinian friend Atallah let us listen via the telephone – we heard shooting and explosions. He also sent faxes to us. The Hamas, Tanzim, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Brigade let the Christian population know that the time had come for them to suffer. And it wouldn’t hurt for newspapers in the West to report: “The Jews are shooting at Christians.” But the newspapers did not write such things. And the fact that Israeli sharpshooters, having grown bored at their posts during the occupation of Bethlehem, took aim at the cross on the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square also did not make the papers. You simply don’t strike a match next to a fuse attached to explosives. But the papers did manage to write that the priests of this same church had offered the terrorists asylum. This was seen as a scandalous act. The Christian Zionists were especially offended. This put the Christians in Bethlehem under even more suspicion. But the right of sanctuary granted by churches is an ancient right that everyone can appeal to. The muzzle of an Aka 47 pistol held against the chest of a priest when asylum was granted confirms such a right.
In my Christian-affiliated morning paper, I read that anyone that gives a glass of water to the enemy of his friend betrays his friend. If you substitute Israel for friend, then you know who the enemy is in this context. I had to ask myself how helpful such a worry-driven statement actually was? Do we not read in the Bible that we should love our enemies? Looking past the corruption of the concept of betrayal by such a moralising statement: from whom should Christian Palestinians expect to receive help if not from fellow Christians? The same type of double standard in an entirely different area is shown by many Christian charities. They are focused on the Jews in Israel or on the Moslems in the occupied territories. This focus has led to situations in which a Moslem and a Christian come to ask for the same type of aid and the organisation decides to help the Moslem and not the Christian. This practice has caused bitterness among the Christians in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the region. When a pastor from the Bethlehem area visited an old married couple he had known growing up in the area where he was born in the north, just south of Jenin, he discovered that the local church were not in a position to care for these elderly parishioners. A Moslem neighbour was caring for them. He helped the man and wife out of bed, put them on chairs and fed them. The pastor was shocked and wanted to know what he could do for them. “You have come too late,” the old man said. “We have become Moslems.”
The eight-metre high wall surrounding Bethlehem – almost completed - in 2005
A few figures might help to put things in perspective: in Bethlehem in 1948, 82 per cent of the population was Christian. Today the Christians make up 18 per cent. And the numbers of Christian families still there, who have lived in Bethlehem for generations (some claiming to trace their ancestry back to the Crusaders and even further), are rapidly dwindling. This will continue, in their view, until Bethlehem is finally abandoned and the star above the stable flickers out in the memory of humanity. "That’s when the Church of the Nativity becomes a museum, when the living stones are no longer present.” The high wall being built by the Sharon government around Bethlehem has only exacerbated the oppressive feeling of being captive, isolated from the outside world. A local artist with an incredibly fine brush technique depicted Mary and the child on a donkey fleeing to Egypt. Joseph guides the animal past the trunks, leaves, branches and twigs of countless olive trees uprooted by bulldozers outside the wall. It was as though time itself had been brought to an abrupt end – these trees grow to be hundreds of years old. I asked the artist: “How did the holy family get out of Bethlehem?” The question took him by surprise and he was silent for a moment. But his friend immediately toned in: “By waving their American passports in the air.”
The solidarity that a Christian Palestinian feels with his national community does not, in principle, differ from the solidarity his Moslem neighbour feels with the same community. Both want to live as a unified nation. Recently, the director of the Bethlehem Bible College, Bishara Awad, whose family was made homeless in 1948, expressed plainly the experience of his people during an ecumenical church conference in England: “We were hungry sheep, reduced to poverty, when the Ottoman colonialism ended, but we were at least secure on our farms. Secure, that is, until the arrival of the British Mandate which, against our will, placed a deeply wounded people among us that, over the course of time, grew strong and finally turned against our people, our land, our culture and our church with violence. And let me be clear,” speaking pointedly to the gathered church leaders, “our primary need is not your sympathy or your charity. Our question to you is: How can the Palestinians establish an independent state on less than 15 per cent of what was once our historic homeland, which is handed back to us as a ridiculously fragmented territory?” Or read the cry of despair and, at the same time, an accusation against the double standards of Israel and the West. I quote from an e-mail received a couple of weeks after the elections, which brought the Hamas party to power, from a Christian Palestinian youth leader, who regularly takes Israeli and Palestinian teenagers on camping trips so that they have the chance to get to know each other and discover that they can live peacefully with one another:
- Early light above the Azza refugee camp as seen from the kitchen window of the BethlehemBibleCollege -
“Why did the West continue to support the old government of Fatah with money. They knew that the leaders of that government were corrupt, that they were thieves. And why does the West not require Israel, as an occupying power, to take responsibility for the Palestinians? Our schools, hospitals, administrative machinery and services should be financed by Israel. It is sad to ascertain that Israel holds on to money that we pay to the Jewish state through a wide range of different taxes. What is now happening politically, following the democratic elections, has given me many sleepless nights and is a great cause of concern about what can happen in the short term. When people have no money, are hungry and frustrated, things can become very dangerous. Is this the democracy that the West values so much? We have democratically elected the wrong people. So the West now says: ‘No, democracy was not such a good idea after all. We have to punish all the civil servants in the government and the entire Palestinian people by shutting off the flow of money.’ This is Democracy?" "What kind of democratic ideals demand that an occupied people, the Palestinians, must recognise an occupier, Israel, and at the same time simply must accept that Israel keeps control over the occupied areas and does not have to recognise the right of the Palestinians to exist or acknowledge their rights to the land. The only thing we want is to earn a living and prove our talents through education. Freedom to move around and not be occupied. Please do not punish us because you flinch from speaking the truth and standing up for justice."
The deep frustration of Christian Palestinians perhaps resembles that of Moslems, but they do not coincide. In choices to be made, exercising criticism, cooperative attitude and the plea for justice to be done to accomplish peace with Israel, the differences between them can often not be met. In their experience constructive plans and initiatives are continually crippled by the duplicity and violence of political machinations. Everything that begins to bloom is trampled underfoot by it. The outcome of sensible and positive thinking runs into a brick wall time after time. Christian Palestinians have found no answer to the problem. They have formally stated that ‘the blame lies with Israel’. For now that is the least confrontational strategy for them to follow. They continue to be saddled with an unpleasant and contradictory feeling. They know that in a society that is totally split, future-oriented thinking cannot flourish. The inhabitants of the refugee camps have turned their backs on the future. The right to exist is symbolised there by the key to the house that was left behind when they took flight. It is a symbol that is ever-present in the mind’s eye. Every framed piece of embroidery hanging on the wall uses a key as a vignette. It is the signature that legalises the contract with the past. The map hanging on the wall bears the bold red letters ‘Palestine‘. The name Israel is nowhere to be seen on the map. The thought of returning to the land now called Israel controls their lives. Having their own nation, a democratic state next to Israel has no chance of success without a right to return to their former land.
For the old people, the intellectuals of the 1970s and 1980s who fought to bring social and political reforms to the Arab world were the example and ideal to follow. They championed democracy. The PLO was a good exponent of it for a time. For years they filled the vacuum left by the death of Egyptian president Nasser, who championed freedom and justice with a revolutionary spirit in the 1960s. They filled this vacuum until sometime after the six-day war in 1967, when the conservative powers in the Arab world once again gained the upper hand. For a time, the PLO railed against the conservative and corrupt Arab regimes. ‘Perhaps,’ wrote the Neue Züricher a short time ago in an analysis under the heading The Palestinians in decline, ’ the PLO was finally poisoned by favoured Islamists who came forward. The organisation’s sentiment turned against Israel and the West. And the loss of a large number of first-rate intellectuals and leaders weakened the PLO further. Instead of gaining freedom and welfare after the Oslo Accords, the population grew poorer due to the corruption of Arafat’s Al Fatah. After twelve years there was still no freedom. There was still no improvement in people’s daily existence. The people in the street had had enough. Their spirit broken by deprivations, made sceptical by a long line of broken promises and with no prospects for the future, the people turned to the Islamic party Hamas, managed by the Hezbollah in Damascus, the ‘Party of God’, which is spriritually led from Iran. From Hamas they expected liberation from poverty, corruption and occupation. But the reactionary and extreme character of Hamas now threatens the current democrats among the Palestinians. Women, especially, fear that everything that they have fought for will be taken away. So what, one may ask, have Western democratic ideals and practice brought to the Palestinian people? Even simple Palestinians, who expect Hamas to provide a solution, now live between fear and worry. They fear that, with the loss of sympathy from the international community, they will also have to go without the very support that ensures their chance of survival.
As a minority group, the Christians – intent on maintaining the tenuous balance between the existing factions and afraid to ask critical questions so as not to put themselves in danger – have noticed that the current status quo is under threat. Muslim clerics have asked for the closure of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) because of the C in the name. The only Christian bookstore in the Gaza Strip has been burned down. The relationship between Moslems and Christians has been put under pressure by propaganda and insinuation. The question is whether Christian Palestinians can continue to avoid asking the difficult questions that are linked to the grey areas of a complex reality. A professor at the Bethlehem Bible College said: "A black-and-white view of the world is attractive because it makes things simple. You only need to make sure that you are standing on the ‘right side of the dividing line’ between the two." But this conflict is anything but simple. "Despite our fears, we have to address the really difficult, but nagging questions, even if it means taking an ethic standpoint that is seen as a betrayal of our national community."
Where to lay the blame
Laying the blame at someone’s door will not bring a fruitful approach to the conflict any closer. And who should you blame? Blame the Palestinian leaders of the past because of their naiveté and corruption? Or blame Israel because of its harsh, uncompromising stance? Blame America because of its short-sightedness? Blame the dithering of the European Union? The current conflict is not only about land, nationhood, ideology and international politics; religion also plays an essential role. For the man in the street, the common Palestinian, it doesn’t make much difference to his daily circumstances. His situation simply continues to be difficult. The common people continue to suffer from poverty, discouragement and the politics of occupation. But the Christians in Bethlehem have an extra sore point to contend with. They think that Christians in the West have become a part of the problem. "They stand fully behind Israel and support the Israeli political strategy of Jewish settlements through thick and thin." A Bethlehem woman expressed the dilemma with an ironic sigh: "Fortunately there weren’t any Christians around when Esau and Jacob reconciled."