(This interview was originally published in Arutz 7)
One of the often overlooked parts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the role that minorities play in Palestinian cities. Area A is made up of eight major cities, including: Ramallah, Hevron, Jenin, Shechem (Nablus), Qalqilya, Tulkarm and Jericho. The eighth is Bethlehem, whose significance to Christians is unforgettable for Westerners. The city had retained a large Christian majority for centuries, but that has changed in recent years.
Since the Second Intifada especially, there has been a mass exodus out of the city to Western countries. Some may be moving to Bethlehem’s suburbs in Beit Jala or Beit Sahour. Israel has received a lot of international flack for this, but that blame would be entirely inconsistent with the general mass Christian exodus in the Middle East prompted by Islamist movements in Iraq and Syria.
“Most Christians in the Palestinian Authority love Israel and would like to see Israel back there,” one expert, who preferred to remain anonymous for the purposes of our interview, told Arutz Sheva. “This is mainly with the older generation, less so with the younger generation who don’t know the history of Israel’s presence there.”
Before the Oslo Accords, Israeli forces were stationed throughout Judea and Samaria. Cities like Bethlehem fell under the Area A classification of a major Palestinian city, giving the Palestinian Authority both civil and security control over the city.
There are, however, distinctions.
“There is a difference between the Orthodox Christians on the one hand with some Catholics and the Protestants on the other,” the expert explained.
Our source speaks of a denominational conflict in Christianity, whose many sects are represented in the Jerusalem-Bethlehem region. Orthodox and Catholic Christians have longer legacies than Protestants, but the Protestant presence started growing before Israel regained independence.
Today, that presence maintains a reciprocal relationship with many Protestant denominations who are fully supportive of the BDS movement. When asked if Israel had done enough to reach out to Christians of any denomination or to address the trend of boycotts in certain denominations, our source said the absence of a plan was glaring.
“Absolutely Israel hasn’t done much in that respect in quite a while. There are Christians within Israel who would greatly appreciate more acknowledgements. It would make their work easier,” according to the source.
While Israeli Christians – many of whom are Arab – have communal connections with Christians in the Palestinian-controlled areas, the politics have caused a situational rift between the two communities. This is not to imply they are hostile to each other, merely the freedoms of Israel contrast sharply with the repressive atmosphere of cities like Bethlehem, where speaking openly with non-hostile views of Israel can invite problems.
There was a survey released by the organization Sabeel some time ago that recorded high numbers of Christians who agreed with the notion Israel was responsible for much of the conflict. However, our source indicates that there is no openness to speak against those ideas, as well as the fact that Sabeel is known for its anti-Israel streak. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume there are not a significant number of Palestinian Christians who are hostile to Israel.
“There is a very small group in the Palestinian regions that espouses Palestinian liberation theology, which they export abroad. It tends to come back there from abroad in waves,” explains the expert.
Liberation theology is a concept in certain streams of Christianity that looks to correct social injustices and justifies those views with theological underpinning. It was popular in the poorer areas of Latin America in the mid-20th century, though has spread to a number of other places. As might be guessed, a Palestinian version of it attempts to justify Palestinian resistance to Israel and to add a theological foundation to Palestinian identity. For Christians who take this view, they are mainly in mainline Protestant denominations (as opposed to Evangelical and other conservative churches).
Sabeel, by the way, is also known as the “Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.”
While there might be plenty of room to be more openly embracive or reach further out to Christians in Palestinian cities, Israel should at the least continue to work with its own Christian minority. Shadi Halul of Gush Halav successfully campaigned for a new legal ethnic classification in Israel – Aramean – to be applied to Israeli Arab Christians and free them of the sociopolitical pressures of identifying as Arab.
Based on that, if Israel can do anything for Christians as far away as those caught between ISIS and the Kurds in Iraq or Syria, it would be welcomed. In the meantime, Arab Christians in places like Bethlehem are “waiting” for Israel to make an effort.
“If someone could come forward with the Israeli view and speak in a Zionist way it would be very helpful. As for PR to Protestant circles abroad, it’s empty or being done only by left-wing Zionists. It shouldn’t be left to just them,” according to the source.
(This interview was originally published in Arutz 7)