Christians continue to suffer on the West Bank

There are constant reminders of the sheer awfulness of the illegal occupation of the West Bank by Israel.  The video which went viral last week showing an Israeli soldier assaulting a 12 year old boy, with his already broken arm in a plaster cast, is a case in point.  He was rescued by his mother and other women from the village, who are now depicted in much of the Israeli press as the attackers and the soldier as the victim! Minister of Culture Miri Regev said the troops should have used their guns!

The British media often presents the conflict as one between mainly Muslim Arabs and Jews, forgetting that there is a significant Christian Arab population, albeit one that continues to decline as more and more leave the country.  I am grateful to the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Foundation for sharing this information.

Christian communities suffer just as much as Muslim communities in the West Bank. In July, the Israeli High Court reversed a previous decision to halt work on the wall which will separate the mostly Christian-populated Beit Jala and the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem, and the Cremisan monastery from its sister convent and school. The new High Court ruling has been challenged. Israeli forces however hastily uprooted dozens of olive trees of Palestinians and leveled land belonging to a number of families as part of its plans to resume the construction of the wall, which is also close to the illegal Israeli Har Gilo settlement.

There has been heavy international opposition to the construction of the wall. When complete, 85 percent of the wall will have been built inside the West Bank and it will annex around 13 percent of the total area of the West Bank. As far back as 2004, the International Court of Justice and the UN General Assembly declared that the construction of the wall was illegal and demanded that it be dismantled.

Each stage of the wall has created Palestinian displacement and Israeli land grab in the West Bank. Cremisan is one of the last remaining agricultural areas for the Bethlehem area. The people of the land grow olives, fruit trees and grapes for the local Cremisan wine in the valley. It is based on well-sustained agricultural practices. Old terraces are carefully kept and the Cremisan is also a recreational site for people in the area. Olive groves are spaces for play and for the people to enjoy nature.

Israeli actions mean that the community will be physically detached from the valley. More than 50 families and two convents will lose their lands. The Salesian Sisters Convent and School, which offers education to more than 400 children from the surrounding villages, will be surrounded by military presence and separated.

Palestinians are protesting, as they have, for many years. Having won a legal battle, the last thing they expected was a reversal of the High Court’s decision. They cling on to the hope that their legal challenge will yield victory. Simultaneously they are being pro-active, lobbying that the educational compound of the Salesian Sisters remain intact so that the children of the surrounding communities can continue their education unimpeded.

Seizing mainly Christian land (there are also plenty of similar incidents involving muslims) is an attack on a religious minority which is specifically forbidden by international law.   Inevitable emigration from such a small community may suit the ethnic cleansing favoured by some of the present Israeli cabinet but is threatening the future existence of Christians in the Holy Land.

In the last weeks David Cameron has appointed the Director of Conservative Friends of Israel, a shamelessly pro-Israel pressure group, to be a new Peer.  Liberal Democrats need to join forces with those in the SNP and the Labour Party who support Palestinian rights and demand serious pressure on Israel to respect international law.  Attacks on religious minorities, the continued occupation of the West Bank and ongoing construction of the wall on Palestinian lands are all illegal.

Comments on this post will be pre-moderated.

* John Kelly is vice-chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine

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17 Comments

  • Ben Midgley 3rd Sep '15 - 4:53pm

    The human tragedy in the West Bank continues but this article seems a little disingenuous, riding on the back of the initial story of the viral video, to introduce the topic of the plight of the Christian Arab minority. With so many unsure of the actual dynamics in the country to conflate and confuse issues seems counterproductive.

  • Miranda Pinch 3rd Sep '15 - 5:17pm

    It is not just Cremisan, Bethlehem and other Christian areas around the West Bank and East Jerusalem (actually part of the West Bank, annexed rather than just occupied by Israel), Christians within Israel are also suffering. Apart from arson and graffiti, there are also more subtle forms of discrimination such as the dearth of funding for Christian run schools within Israel itself. In fact the funding crisis has become so great that they are on strike this week! These schools are not just for Christians, they are available to all, but are denied finance, facilities and permissions required to be able to give pupils as full an education as Israeli Jews of the same age. So like many other issues, education within Israel is segregated and Muslim and Christian education is demoted and discouraged. It means that the very lengthy tradition of Palestinian Christians living in that part of Palestine, now known as Israel – their history and culture are also under threat.
    I am often told how well Israel treats its Christian minority and that their numbers are growing. It is true that there are new Russian Christians with Jewish ancestry who are bolstering numbers and, indeed, Christian Zionists are welcome, but, except for births, there is a marked decline in historic Palestinian Christianity in both Israel and the West Bank.
    Last year I visited Mar Elias Chacour in Ibellin, Israel. He set up schools and a university for all and like others his schools are now on strike. One thing he made very clear to me (and I have a recording of him saying this) is that it is not the Muslims who are the cause of their problems as , after all, they have lived side by side in peace for many centuries, it is the Israeli occupation and discrimination that is at the root of their problems.

  • Jonathan Brown 3rd Sep '15 - 5:57pm

    @Ben – It’s not uncommon to use a current event to highlight an ongoing injustice or problem. While the video’d events may not be directly related I think it’s entirely fair to use what is currently a high profile example of the kind of thing happening on a regular basis to draw attention to the wider issues.

    The dynamics of the conflict are complex indeed but I thought this was a very interesting article which in fact explores one of those dynamics in more depth than is usual.

    And although most of this article focuses on the Arab Christians of Palestine, John puts the story very much in the wider context of political trends in Israel/Palestine and political developments in the UK.

  • Ben Midgley – “With so many unsure of the actual dynamics in the country to conflate and confuse issues seems counterproductive.”
    In the Lib Dem circles that I mix in there is little confusion about “actual dynamics” – only those in total denial can ignore the misery being unjustly inflicted on Palestinians day after day. The story behind the viral video is one of a village losing its spring because settlers have seized it and there is a weekly protest on the Muslim day of rest. Soldiers are on hand to make sure that the villagers can’t get to their spring and things understandably get heated. In another part of the West Bank a Christian community is being divided by the wall from its school and church. It all seems to me part of the same picture of oppression. AND IT’S CLEARLY ILLEGAL UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW TO ALL EXCEPT THE OFFENDERS AND THOSE WHO SUPPORT THEM.

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Sep '15 - 9:15pm

    i cannot get into the detail because of a lack of expertise, but Christianity was a religion founded in what we now call the Middle East (in between the near east and the far east) but then called the Roman empire. Counter-intuitive or ‘impossible’ as it seemed, Christianity became the main religion of the Roman empire. Israel has numerous important religious sites and benefits financially from tourists visiting those sites from around the world. So what exactly is the interest of the Israeli government?

  • Miranda Pinch 3rd Sep '15 - 9:58pm

    Richard, that is a good question. I have heard some Palestinian Christians say that what they fear is that Israel will turn the christian sites into a sort of Christian Disneyland without any real Christianity to underpin them anymore. That would resolve the issue of tourism for Israel. It would not be in Israel’s interest to allow the Christian sites to be destroyed ultimately for that reason, though they seem to have little control over the more extreme elements of Israeli society.

  • Jonathan Brown 3rd Sep '15 - 10:12pm

    @Richard – if you’re a liberal (be it of the left or right) and an Israeli, then arguably there is no Israeli interest in chasing out Palestinian Christians from Israel and Palestine.

    If you’re an authoritarian / nationalist who sees everything through the lense of ‘security’ and/or religious fundamentalism, then the reasons for getting rid of Christians are to cement a Jewish majority in the area, to undermine indiginous culture so as to make it harder for the people to resist colonisation, to divide the indiginous population so that they resent each other rather than the occupier and they possibly also believe with some justification that a Christian / post-Christian ‘West’ will view the Palestinian cause with less sympathy if the remaining Palestinians are all Muslim rather than a pluralist society. There is also a degree of ‘historical cleansing’ taking place – in seeking to erase the culture, identity and memory of the Palestinians, there is an effort to delegitimise their claims to their land.

  • John McHugo 3rd Sep '15 - 10:53pm

    Richard Underhill – You ask what exactly is the interest of the Israeli government. It is to have as much territory for its state as possible, but with as few as possible of the indigenous non-Jews in it. That explains why it is building a wall through the West Bank in breach of international law so to enclose fields, vineyards and woods on its side, while leaving the Arab inhabitants of Bethlehem, to whom the land belongs, on the other side. As Abba Eban, Israel’s veteran foreign minister, charmingly put it in a cabinet minute in 1968: there is only so much arsenic the human body can absorb, meaning that Israel should not add significantly to its Palestinian Arab population (which includes Palestinian Christians, many of whose ancestors converted to Christianity in New Testament times).

  • John Tilley 4th Sep '15 - 5:21am

    “…Liberal Democrats need to join forces with those in the SNP and the Labour Party who support Palestinian rights and demand serious pressure on Israel to respect international law..”

    Until such time as Netanyahu or some other Israeli demagogue is dragged before an international court and sentenced accordingly what “serious pressure” would work?

    Economic sanctions against The Apartheid regime is the only serious pressure likely to have an impact. It worked against the last Apartheid regime that stained the international community. It will work again.

  • Michael Seymour 4th Sep '15 - 8:37am

    When will our government acknowledge the iniquities of the Netanhue government, against the Palestinians.

  • Ben Midgley 4th Sep '15 - 10:06am

    The plight of Palestinian villagers separated from their land by either illegal or legal steps is painful to witness. It may sound glib to say they must remain peaceful in their attempts to overcome, but their resistance often thrusts young children into the firing line with the implicit or explicit support of adults. The David and Goliath metaphor has been used to great ironic effect. Israeli society seeks to exemplify restraint but is increasingly hardening the legal consequences of stone throwing such as was taking place at the demonstration in question. It is ironic that the same image is being used to lionise the restraint exerted by IDF personnel under provocation.

    It is true that Israel is shifting from a secular notion of a secure state for displaced Jews (the migrant/refugee crisis of the last century) towards a religious notion of a Jewish state and this has exacerbated tensions. This is reflected in the religious dimension to the narrative of their Palestinian counterparts for whom radical Islam is increasingly playing a leading part – Hamas in Gaza being the most prominent example. Both views have mutual exclusivity built in.

    For Christian Arab minorities in the occupied territories and within Israel proper concern grows about their survival in an Islamist future. Historically, both Muslims and Christians have participated in anti-Jewish victimisation, making Israeli Jews at best suspicious of their attempts to change sides, and bringing down the ire of the Islamists on their heads.

    The destiny of minorities in the Middle East has always been precarious and never more so than now, the hope of all these people is in secular liberal and democratic societies and it would seem to me that our priority needs to be finding those who we can support to these ends.

  • Nigel Jones 4th Sep '15 - 11:54am

    @Jonathan Brown: “to cement a Jewish majority in the area”.
    This may well be the aim of the right-wing Jewish religious extremists, but it is not true of most people living there, who should be referred to as Israelis rather than Jews. There are a significant number of Israelis (Jewish and otherwise) who disagree profoundly with their government; across the world there are many Jews who do not seek domination over others. Jonathan Sacks, the previous leader of the orthodox Jewish community in the UK has written clearly in his book “The home we build together” against any kind of theocracy and argues on the basis of the Hebrew Bible for Liberal Democracy. He says that when religion seeks power, the result is always disastrous. I know many Christians who say the same, making a distinction between religion and faith.

    Ben, your last piece refers to the restraint of the IDF; that is often true but not always. However, you miss the point. Having taken over the villagers’ spring and prevented them from using it, they are confident about their ability and authority to do that, so they know they can continue with this action and outright force is not necessary. I am sure that if they were faced with armed attack from the villagers trying to regain their water source, they would not hesitate to be as forceful as necessary in response; that is something Israeli leaders explicitly say on occasions. The main point is that they should not have taken over the spring; they are acting inhumanely by denying the villagers access to it.

  • Miranda Pinch 4th Sep '15 - 3:03pm

    Ben, you say “For Christian Arab minorities in the occupied territories and within Israel proper concern grows about their survival in an Islamist future. Historically, both Muslims and Christians have participated in anti-Jewish victimisation, making Israeli Jews at best suspicious of their attempts to change sides, and bringing down the ire of the Islamists on their heads.” That is so incorrect! Until the occupation of Palestinian land and intention of creating a Jewish State, Christians and Muslims got on very well together and in fact, prior to the creation of Israel, both groups mixed reasonably well with the small jewish population. Islam has never been a threat to Christianity in the region. It is the insistence of a Jewish only identity for Israel and the annexation of more and more land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that creates any conflict that now exists between Christians and Muslims. If both are being more and more restricted and their land taken, then there is more competition for scarce resources. Plenty of Christian leaders have made these points very clearly.
    It seems strange for you to refer to victimization of Jews in the region, when it is the Jews, who subsequently became Israelis who caused the Nakba (catastrophe) on the creation of Israel, killing, destroying and driving out many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian and destroying their villages (500 in all). many of those refugees are now suffering in the hell hole of Yarmouk in Syria and other places, internal and external, to Palestine. The rest of Palestine has been occupied. I think you have turned the situation on its head. It is the Palestinians who are the victims in all this, hardly the Israelis!

  • Richard Underhill 4th Sep '15 - 5:47pm

    France was offended when the Israeli PM said French Jews should go to Israel.
    Is it in Israel’s interest to have friends and co-religionists in other countries?

  • John Tilley 5th Sep '15 - 4:30am

    Guy Burton 4th Sep ’15 – 10:03am

    Guy Burton, I do not wish to disagree with what you say.

    I too wish we were near the end of a boycott campaign similar to the late 1980s in South Africa rather than the beginning.
    I well remember people in the 1960s saying that economic sanctions against Soith Africa’s Apartheid Regime would take decades to be effective and therefore the military option was the only practical answer. Indeed some South African Liberal Party members took that view.

    Economic sanctions against Israel may not bring immediate success but they can be most effective.

  • Ben Midgley 8th Sep '15 - 6:27pm

    Four days is a long time in the blogosphere, so not sure if anyone is actually awaiting my reply, but here it is:

    The plight of Christians in Israel is mild compared to the fate of their co-religionists in neighbouring Syria, Egypt or nearby Iraq. That is not an excuse but it is a fact, and needs remembering for the sake of proportionality in the public debate.

    I also think it a fact that the historical experience of the Jewish community in both the Middle East and Continental Europe has often been degrading, sometimes in the extreme, the examples of which are too numerous and unpleasant to rehearse here and it is no wonder that there is little trust or sympathy.

    That said, it is also true that ordinary people have and do rise above these animosities at times and distinguish themselves by their humanity which is a source of hope – these must be our partners.

    Sadly once again it has to be said that the pursuit of political power based on sectarian alliance has been the blight of the Middle East and secular, democratic and liberal politics are the only hope of the millions who desperately need to see the vast potential of the region unlocked for all those who live there.

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