Israeli Occupation Casts Shadow Over Bethlehem


Writing for The Times recently, Michael Gove lashed out at the seasonal focus on contemporary Bethlehem's plight under Israeli occupation. "Demonizing" Israel, apparently, has become as festive as "eggnog lattes."

Gove is at least partly correct. Christmas is an obvious opportunity for Bethlehem's residents and their supporters to raise awareness. Gove mentioned the latest work done by graffiti artist Banksy, but the Palestine Solidarity Campaign also recently held a concert in London, while the Amos Trust has a downloadable pack for use in churches around the country.

But if Gove's powers of observation do not fail him, sadly his powers of analysis do. Like many apologists for Israeli policies, he is happy to use the Christian Palestinians for propaganda designed to deflect attention from Israeli policies on to the threat of "Islamist radicals."

The dominating reality for Christian Palestinians this Christmas will be the 40-year Israeli occupation that continues to have a devastating impact on the Bethlehem region. The illegal separation wall, for example, cuts right into the north of the city (not simply "near", as Gove wrote) and in the area as a whole only 6% of the wall adheres to the Green Line. Christian and Muslim families have all lost land to the path of the wall - some villages face imprisonment in tiny enclaves. In July alone, the Israeli military confiscated 1,500 acres from the Christian majority town of Beit Jala, on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

Occupation in Bethlehem means home demolitions and military raids. There are around 40 obstructions to freedom of movement in the Bethlehem region, including the wall, manned checkpoints, roadblocks, and gates. The economy has been devastated, like the rest of the occupied territories, by Israel's strangulation policies.

Har Homa settlement recently made news when Israel announced plans to build more houses in territory it has unilaterally annexed as part of "Greater Jerusalem". Har Homa is also one of the main restrictions to Bethlehem's natural growth, one of 20 illegal Jewish colonies surrounding the city and its environs.

With no prospect of either individual or collective freedom, dignity or opportunity under Israeli apartheid, many of Bethlehem's Christian residents see no alternative but to leave. These are the appalling, and worsening, political and economic "push" factors behind the worryingly high level of Christian Palestinian emigration, as surveys have corroborated.

For years though, a coalition of the Israeli government, far-right thinktanks, and US Christian Zionists have sought to both create a smokescreen and foster division in Palestinian society by alleging that "Islamic fundamentalists" are waging an anti-Christian "jihad". While the claim of persecution is demonstrably false and it is doubtful, to say the least, if those behind such campaigns have the Palestinians' best interests at heart, there are still genuine sectarian tensions that need acknowledging.

For the sake of national unity - and confronting deliberate "divide and conquer" tactics - it is tempting for Palestinian leaders and solidarity groups to play down or ignore the incidents of inter-communal conflict. This also does not do the Christian Palestinians, or Palestinian society as a whole, any favors.

Muslim-Christian relations in Palestine are shaped by numerous overlapping, interconnecting and sometimes conflicting factors. There is the tribal-patriarchal dimension to the society, particularly in more conservative rural areas, that combined with family disputes can lead to clashes which are easily spun as religiously motivated.

The demographic balance has also been upset by substantial population displacements, from the creation of refugee camps in 1948 and 1967, to more recent rural-urban migrants in search of hard-to-find jobs. Social disintegration, moreover, has become an increasingly serious consequence of Israeli colonization and the fragmentation of Palestine. A scarcity of land, along with localized lawlessness, means that minorities are vulnerable to exploitation by the unscrupulous.

While Christian Palestinians continue their historically key role in the national liberation struggle, some members of the community (as well as more secular-minded Muslims) have felt alienated or intimidated by the rise of an Islamist politics of resistance. Hamas has often tried to counteract this sentiment, but strong ambivalence remains at a popular level. Worse still are signs that from the desperate hopelessness of besieged Gaza, a few Palestinians are turning to anti-Christian religious fanaticism.

Finally, sectarian relations have also been affected by the "war on terror." The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were launched by very publicly Christian leaders, and in the case of President Bush, with strong domestic support from the Christian Right. The same lobby organizes politically to urge unconditional support for Israel. Indigenous Middle East Christians, therefore, can become objects of suspicion, or more appallingly, easy targets for violent Islamist fringe groups.

Ignoring all these factors and maintaining that Muslim-Christian relations in Palestine are without problems is counterproductive. That's a far cry, however, from shoehorning a beleaguered community into a neoconservative narrative, and covering for Israel's colonizing occupation by feigning concern for the Christians who will celebrate Christmas in the shadow of the wall.

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