There is an absurd scene in Palestinian writer
Suad Amiry's recent book Sharon
and My Mother-in-Law that is revealing about Israeli Jews' attitude
to the two other monotheistic religions. In 1992, long before Israel turned
Amiry's home city of Ramallah into a permanent ghetto behind checkpoints and
walls, it was still possible for West Bank Palestinians to drive to Jerusalem
and even into Israel at least if they had the right permit.
On one occasion Amiry ventures out in her car to East Jerusalem, the half
of the city that was Palestinian before the 1967 war and has since been engulfed
by relentless illegal and state-organized Jewish settlement.
There she sees an elderly Jew collapsing out his car and on to the side of
the road. She pulls over, realizes he is having a heart attack and bundles him
into the back of her own car. Not able to speak Hebrew, she reassures him in
English that she is taking him to the nearest hospital.
But as it starts to dawn on him that she is Palestinian, Amiry realizes the
terrible problem her charitable act has created: his fear may prompt him to
have another heart attack. "What if he had a fatal heart attack in the
back seat of my car? Would the Israeli police ever believe I was just trying
to help?" she wonders.
The Jewish man seeks to calm himself by asking Amiry if she is from Bethlehem,
a Palestinian city known for being Christian. Unable to lie, she tells him she
is from Ramallah. "You're Christian?" he asks more directly. "Muslim,"
she admits, to his utter horror. Only when they finally make it to the hospital
does he relax enough to mumble in thanks: "There are good Palestinians
I was reminded of that story as I made the journey to Bethlehem on Christmas
Day. The small city that Amiry's Jewish heart attack victim so hoped she would
hail from is today as much of an isolated enclave in the West Bank as other
Palestinian cities or at least it is for its Palestinian inhabitants.
For tourists and pilgrims, getting in or out of Bethlehem has been made reasonably
straightforward, presumably to conceal from international visitors the realities
of Palestinian life. I was even offered a festive chocolate Santa Claus by the
Israeli soldiers who control access to the city where Jesus was supposedly born.
Seemingly oblivious to the distressing historical parallels, however, Israel
forces foreigners to pass through a "border crossing" a gap
in the menacing grey concrete wall that recalls the stark black and white
images of the entrance to Auschwitz.
The gates of Auschwitz offered a duplicitous motto, "Arbeit macht frei"
(Work makes you free), and so does Israel's gateway to Bethlehem. "Peace
be with you" is written in English, Hebrew and Arabic on a colorful large
notice covering part of the grey concrete. The people of Bethlehem have scrawled
their own, more realistic assessments of the wall across much of its length.
Foreign visitors can leave, while Bethlehem's Palestinians are now sealed
into their ghetto. As long as these Palestinian cities are not turned into death
camps, the West appears ready to turn a blind eye. Mere concentration camps,
it seems, are acceptable.
The West briefly indulged in a bout of soul-searching about the wall following
the publication in July 2004 of the International Court of Justice's advisory
opinion condemning its construction. Today the only mild rebukes come from Christian
leaders around Christmas time. Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan
Williams, was foremost among them this year.
Even those concerns, however, relate mainly to fears that the Holy Land's
native Christians, once a significant proportion of the Palestinian population,
are rapidly dwindling. There are no precise figures, but the Israeli media suggests
that Christians, who once constituted as much as 15 per cent of the occupied
territories' Palestinians, are now just 2 or 3 per cent. Most are to be found
in the West Bank close to Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, Ramallah and neighboring
A similar pattern can be discerned inside Israel too, where Christians have
come to comprise an ever-smaller proportion of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.
In 1948 they were nearly a quarter of that minority (itself 20 per cent of the
total Israeli population), and today they are a mere 10 percent. Most are located
in Nazareth and nearby villages in the Galilee.
Certainly, the continuing fall in the number of Christians in the Holy Land
concerns Israel's leadership almost as keenly as the patriarchs and bishops
who visit Bethlehem at Christmas but for quite the opposite reason. Israel
is happy to see Christians leave, at least of the indigenous Palestinian variety.
(More welcome are the crazed fundamentalist Christian Zionists from the United
States who have been arriving to help engineer the departure of Palestinians,
Muslims and Christians alike, in the belief that, once the Jews have dominion
over the whole of the Holy Land, Armageddon and the "End Times" will
Of course, that is not Israel's official story. Its leaders have been quick
to blame the exodus of Christians on the wider Palestinian society from which
they are drawn, arguing that a growing Islamic extremism, and the election of
Hamas to lead the Palestinian Authority, have put Christians under physical
threat. This explanation neatly avoids mentioning that the proportion of Christians
has been falling for decades.
According to Israel's argument, the decision by many Christians to leave the
land where generations of their ancestors have been rooted is simply a reflection
of the "clash of civilizations," in which a fanatical Islam is facing
down the Judeo-Christian West. Palestinian Christians, like Jews, have found
themselves caught on the wrong side of the Middle East's confrontation lines.
Here is how the Jerusalem Post, for example, characterized the fate
of the Holy Land's non-Muslims in a Christmas editorial: "Muslim intolerance
toward Christians and Jews is cut from exactly the same cloth. It is the same
jihad." The Post concluded by arguing that only by confronting the
jihadis would "the plight of persecuted Christians and of the persecuted
Jewish state be ameliorated."
Similar sentiments were recently aired in an article by Aaron Klein of WorldNetDaily
republished on Ynet, Israel's most popular website, that preposterously characterized
a procession of families through Nazareth on Eid al-Adha, the most important
Muslim festival, as a show of strength by militant Islam designed to intimidate
Islam's green flags were "brandished," according to Klein, whose
reporting transformed a local troupe of Scouts and their marching band into
"Young Muslim men in battle gear" "beating drums." Nazareth's
youngsters, meanwhile, were apparently the next generation of Qassam rocket
engineers: "Muslim children launched firecrackers into the sky, occasionally
misfiring, with the small explosives landing dangerously close to the crowds."
Such sensationalist misrepresentations of Palestinian life are now a staple
of the local and American media. Support for Hamas, for example, is presented
as proof of jihadism run amok in Palestinian society rather than as evidence
of despair at Fatah's corruption and collaboration with Israel and ordinary
Palestinians' determination to find leaders prepared to counter Israel's terminal
cynicism with proper resistance.
The clash of civilizations thesis is usually ascribed to a clutch of American
intellectuals, most notably Samuel
Huntingdon, the title of whose book gave the idea popular currency, and
the Orientalist academic Bernard Lewis. But alongside them have been the guiding
lights of the neocon movement, a group of thinkers deeply embedded in the centers
of American power who were recently described
by Ynet as mainly comprising "Jews who share a love for Israel."
In fact, the idea of a clash of civilizations grew out of a worldview that
was shaped by Israel's own interpretation of its experiences in the Middle East.
An alliance between the neocons and Israeli leaders was cemented in the mid-1990s
with the publication of a document called "A
Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." It offered a US
foreign policy tailor-made to suit Israel's interests, including plans for an
invasion of Iraq, authored by leading neocons and approved by the Israeli prime
minister of the day, Binyamin Netanyahu.
When the neocons rose to power with George Bush's election to the White House,
the birth of the bastard offspring of the clash of civilizations the
war on terror was all but inevitable.
Paradoxically, this vision of our future, set out by American and Israeli
Jews, is steeped in fundamentalist Christian religious symbolism, from the promotion
of a civilized West's crusade against the Muslim hordes to the implication that
the final confrontation between these civilizations (a nuclear attack on Iran?)
may be the End Times itself and thereby lead to the return of the Messiah.
If this clash is to be realized, it must be convincing at its most necessary
confrontation line: the Middle East and more specifically the Holy Land. The
clash of civilizations must be embodied in Israel's experience as a civilized,
democratic state fighting for its very survival against its barbarian Muslim
There is only one problem in selling this image to the West: the minority
of Christian Palestinians who have happily lived under Muslim rule in the Holy
Land for centuries. Today, in a way quite infuriating to Israel, these Christians
confuse the picture by continuing to take a leading role in defining Palestinian
nationalism and resistance to Israel's occupation. They prefer to side with
the Muslim "fanatics" than with Israel,
the Middle East's only outpost of Judeo-Christian "civilization."
The presence of Palestinian Christians reminds us that the supposed "clash
of civilizations" in the Holy Land is not really a war of religions but
a clash of nationalisms, between the natives and European colonial settlers.
Inside Israel, for example, Christians have been the backbone of the Communist
party, the only non-Zionist party Israel allowed for several decades. Many of
the Palestinian artists and intellectuals who are most critical of Israel are
Christians, including the late novelist Emile Habibi; the writer Anton Shammas
and film-makers Elia Suleiman and Hany Abu Assad (all now living in exile);
and the journalist Antoine Shalhat (who, for reasons unknown, has been placed
under a loose house arrest, unable
to leave Israel).
The most notorious Palestinian nationalist politician inside Israel is Azmi
Bishara, yet another Christian, who has been put on trial and is regularly abused
by his colleagues in the Knesset.
Similarly, Christians have been at the core of the wider secular Palestinian
national movement, helping to define its struggle. They range from exiled professors
such as the late Edward Said to human rights activists in the occupied territories
such as Raja Shehadeh. The founders of the most militant wings of the national
movement, the Democratic and Popular Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine,
were Nayif Hawatmeh and George Habash, both Christians.
This intimate involvement of Palestinian Christians in the Palestinian national
struggle is one of the reasons why Israel has been so keen to find ways to encourage
their departure and then blame it on intimidation by, and violence from,
In truth, however, the fall in the number of Christians can be explained by
two factors, neither of which is related to a clash of civilizations.
The first is a lower rate of growth among the Christian population. According
to the latest figures from Israel's Bureau of Census Statistics, the average
Christian household in Israel contains 3.5 people compared to 5.2 in a Muslim
household. Looked at another way, in 2005 33 percent of Christians were under
the age of 19, compared to 55 percent of Muslims. In other words, the proportion
of Christians in the Holy Land has been eroded over time by higher Muslim birth
But a second factor is equally, if not more, important. Israel has established
an oppressive rule for Palestinians both inside Israel and in the occupied territories
that has been designed to encourage the most privileged Palestinians, which
has meant disproportionately Christians, to leave.
This policy has been implemented with stealth for decades, but has been greatly
accelerated in recent years with the erection of the wall and numerous checkpoints.
The purpose has been to encourage the Palestinian elite and middle class to
seek a better life in the West, turning their back on the Holy Land.
Palestinian Christians have had the means to escape for two reasons. First,
they have traditionally enjoyed a higher standard of living, as city-based shopkeepers
and business owners, rather than poor subsistence farmers in the countryside.
And second, their connection to the global Churches has made it simpler for
them to find sanctuary abroad, often beginning as trips for their children to
Israel has turned Christian parents' financial ability and their children's
increased opportunities to its own advantage, by making access to higher education
difficult for Palestinians both inside Israel and in the occupied territories.
Inside Israel, for example, Palestinian citizens still find it much harder
to attend university than Jewish citizens, and even more so to win places on
the most coveted courses, such as medicine and engineering.
Instead, for many decades Israel's Christians and Muslims became members of
the Communist party in the hope of receiving scholarships to attend universities
in Eastern Europe. Christians were also able to exploit their ties to the Churches
to help them head off to the West. Many of these overseas graduates, of course,
never returned, especially knowing that they would be faced with an Israeli
economy much of which is closed to non-Jews.
Something similar occurred in the occupied territories, where Palestinian
universities have struggled under the occupation to offer a proper standard
of education, particularly faced with severe restrictions on the movement of
staff and students. Still today, it is not possible to study for a PhD in either
the West Bank or Gaza, and Israel has blocked Palestinian students from attending
its own universities. The only recourse for most who can afford it has been
to head abroad. Again, many have chosen never to return.
But in the case of the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, Israel found
it even easier to close the door behind them. It established rules, in violation
of international law, that stripped these Palestinians of their right to residency
in the occupied territories during their absence. When they tried to return
to their towns and villages, many found that they were allowed to stay only
on temporary visas, including tourist visas, that they had to renew with the
Israeli authorities every few months.
Nearly a year ago, Israel quietly took a decision to begin kicking these Palestinians
out by refusing to issue new visas. Many of them are academics and business
people who have been trying to rebuild Palestinian society after decades of
damage inflicted by the occupying regime. A recent report by the most respected
Palestinian university, Bir Zeit, near Ramallah, revealed that one department
had lost 70 per cent of its staff because of Israel's refusal to renew visas.
Although there are no figures available, it can probably be safely assumed
that a disproportionate number of Palestinians losing their residency rights
are Christian. Certainly the effect of further damaging the education system
in the occupied territories will be to increase the exodus of Palestine's next
generation of leaders, including its Christians.
In addition, the economic strangulation of the Palestinians by the wall, the
restrictions on movement and the international economic blockade of the Palestinian
Authority are damaging the lives of all Palestinians with increasing severity.
Privileged Palestinians, and that doubtless includes many Christians, are being
encouraged to seek a rapid exit from the territories.
From Israel's point of view, the loss of Palestinian Christians is all to
the good. It will be happier still if all of them leave, and Bethlehem and Nazareth
pass into the effective custodianship of the international Churches.
Without Palestinian Christians confusing the picture, it will be much easier
for Israel to persuade the West that the Jewish state is facing a monolithic
enemy, fanatical Islam, and that the Palestinian national struggle is really
both a cover for jihad and a distraction from the clash of civilizations against
which Israel is the ultimate bulwark. Israel's hands will be freed.
Israelis like Amiry's heart attack victim may believe that Palestinian Christians
are not really a threat to their or their state's existence, but be sure that
Israel has every reason to continue persecuting and excluding Palestinian Christians
as much, if not more, than it does Palestinian Muslims.