Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating once again. What are Christians in the Holy Land to expect from this? And how do they fare under Israeli occupation?
By Oliver Maksan for ACN International
“The Jewish settlements surround us on all sides and make life very difficult for us Palestinians.” Louis Hazboun was born in Bethlehem. Since last year this amiable man has been parish priest of the Latin Catholic parish in Bir Zeit, a small town close to Ramallah. There is a university here; otherwise there is not much to see. This particular area of the West Bank, occupied since 1967 by Israel, is rural and picturesque, with olive orchards and small fields surrounding the quiet town, whose population is a mixture of Muslims and Christians.
Roughly 4,000 of its 7,000 or so inhabitants are Muslims; the remainder are Christians, divided among Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans. It is a region of peaceful coexistence with a long tradition. Nonetheless, the idyllic appearance is deceptive, on account of the Jewish settlements surrounding it.
“Again and again the settlers shut off our water or electricity, because they need it themselves. That very much restricts us here – and in our own country, moreover! We experience every day what occupation means,” said Father Hazboun to visiting representatives from ACN. He also points out the checkpoints that so massively restrict the Palestinians in their freedom of movement. Often, 18-year-old Israeli soldiers will decide whether an 80-year-old man can pass through or not. “The approach is extremely capricious and the whole procedure is humiliating,” comments Father Hazboun.
Apart from this, there are also the economic effects of the occupation. “Israel decides what can be imported. For example, if the Israelis have a surplus of olives, then they flood our markets and knock our farmers’ prices here through the floor. Yet for many Christian families, their agriculture is crucial.” Previously, before the building of the wall separating Israel from the occupied territories, many Christians from the town had worked in nearby Jerusalem, which is only around 12 miles (20 km) away. Today that is mostly impossible, owing to the time-consuming checkpoint controls and the entry restrictions.
“A kind of forced emigration”
Only a handful of Christians from Bir Zeit work in the Latin patriarchate, or as doctors and teachers in the Christian schools. “As much as we would like to do so, however, the Church simply cannot employ all the Christians,” remarks Father Hazboun regretfully. As a result many Christians in the town are unemployed – and with dire consequences. “We have a whole succession of grown men who would love to marry and establish a family. But they simply cannot afford to do so. Consequently, any young person who can do so, goes away.”
Yusef Daher views this Christian exodus from the Holy Land with great concern. A Catholic layman, he runs the Inter-Church Centre in Jerusalem, an interdenominational establishment that advocates the rights of Christians in the Holy Land. “There are around a million
Palestinian Christians in the world today. But just 20% of them live in what today constitutes Israel and the occupied territories. The rest are scattered all over the world.” Of these around 150,000 Christians are found in Israel itself, while the rest – around 50,000 – reside in East Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. “The emigration of the Christians from the Holy Land tends to go in waves,” Yusef Daher tells ACN. “The last great wave came as a result of the second intifada, after 2000.”
The situation in Jerusalem itself presents a special case, he tells us, since East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, though it is still claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Arab Christians living here, like most other Palestinians living under Israeli rule since 1967, have no Israeli citizenship but only a residence permit. And they lose even this if they reside for any length of time outside Jerusalem, with relatives on the West Bank, for example. “Hence there is a kind of forced emigration taking place here. As a result the number of Christians in Jerusalem is declining dramatically,” explains Yusef Daher, an expert on the situation.
Another reason for the sense of oppression among Palestinian Christians, he believes, is the capricious approach by the Israelis to the granting of entry permits for the major Christian feasts, when numerous Christians from the occupied territories want to travel to Jerusalem. Not everyone is granted them. All this Daher sees as an expression of a fundamental discrimination by Israel between Jews and non-Jews. “Palestinian Christians suffer just like all other Palestinians. As long as one is not Jewish, one receives the same discriminatory treatment,” he says.
Meanwhile, with regard to the recently resumed peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, he has no great expectations. “We Palestinians naturally hope that the peace talks between us and the Israelis will ultimately lead to a two-state solution. But at the present time, I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. There have been talks often enough without them leading to anything. But one thing I know for sure – in the long run one cannot deny a free people their own state.”