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Divide and conquer: Israel seeks to split Palestinians

Pro-Israel propagandists have long claimed that Palestinian Christians are persecuted by their Muslim compatriots

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

Pro-Israel propagandists have long claimed that Palestinian Christians are persecuted by their Muslim compatriots rather than by Israel. The allegations seem to resurface around Christmas, Easter or papal visits (Pope Francis will be in the Holy Land on May 24-26). This despite the lack of evidence and the vehement denials of Palestinian Christians.

In this regard, the pro-Israel lobby has a new poster girl, a Palestinian Christian who goes by the name of “Christy” Anastas. Her claims about Palestinian oppression of the Christian minority have been doing the rounds, so much so that if one does online searches of Palestinian Christians using different word variations, Christy comes up as a top result.

Her own family say they “denounce” and “reject fully and completely” her allegations. They believe that Christy, who now lives in England, is the victim of “an act of entrapment and exploitation perpetrated by the Israeli occupation.” Her current viewpoint contrasts starkly with her appearance in a CBS report in 2012, in which she condemned Israel’s practices.

Christy claims that her family’s reaction is a result of pressure from the Palestinian Authority. This echoes Israeli propaganda that expressions by Palestinian Christians of solidarity and unity with their Muslim compatriots is a grand act of nationwide coercion.

Conspiracy theories

This ridiculous conspiracy does not explain why Palestinian Christian citizens of Israel, who are not governed by the PA, complain of the same endemic discrimination by Israeli government and society that is endured by Israel’s Palestinian Muslims.

The voices of the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Christians are drowned out or ignored by those whose agenda is to divide Palestinians along religious lines

Sharif Nashashibi

One can certainly criticise the PA for human rights abuses, but there is no evidence that it targets the Christian community. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has described such claims as “absolutely untrue” and “a big lie,” adding that “all Christians are well respected by the PA.”

Afif Safieh, a Christian former ambassador to the UK and the Vatican, told me this month that his community is “over-represented in Palestinian society in all fields of work: in the political sphere, the diplomatic corps, education, medicine, and all sectors of the arts.” The PA’s record “is far better than Israel’s,” Nicolas Pelham, a correspondent for The Economist based in Jerusalem, wrote on May 14, providing numerous stark comparisons.

Denying Israeli propaganda

The view of the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Christians is that Israel is to blame for their suffering. This is supported by a survey by Rifat Qassis, co-founder of the Palestinian National Coalition for Christian Organizations in Palestine.

According to an article in 2012 by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the poll revealed that “the vast majority” of Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories “said their desire to emigrate was linked to the lack of security and stability they feel under Israeli rule. Less than 1 percent spoke about being afraid of Muslims.”

The same article reported a letter signed by 80 prominent Palestinian Christians, who said the “attempt to blame the difficult reality that Palestinian Christians face on Palestinian Muslims is a shameful manipulation of the facts intended to mask the damage that Israel has done to our community.”

Two prominent Palestinian priests wrote in the Jerusalem Post in 2012 that Israeli spokespeople “have wrongly propagated a cynical discourse misleadingly touting ‘Christian persecution by Muslims’.”

They added: “Israel does not differentiate between Palestinian Christians and Muslims in its policies. Several studies have shown that the Israeli occupation and settlement activities are the main reason for Christian emigration. These claims are not Palestinian ‘propaganda’ but have been largely researched by the US government, the European Union and the United Nations.”

Obscuring the truth

The voices of the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Christians are drowned out or ignored by those whose agenda is to divide Palestinians along religious lines. Just one of many examples is an article in The Times by Michael Gove (Britain’s current education secretary), in which he claimed: “The parlous position of Palestinian Christians... is a consequence not of Israeli aggression but of growing Islamist influence.”

The BBC invited Gove and I to debate the issue. I participated but he declined the invitation, perhaps because he knew what was to come: an hour of phone calls from Palestinian Christians describing his allegations as absurd.

Personal experience

During my visits to Palestine since 2000, and my time working there for the United Nations, I experienced nothing but co-existence. I hung out and worked with Muslims and Christians together, without any tension, and was touched by the sights of mosques and churches standing side by side. This was especially heart-warming given the intermarriage of Muslims and Christians in my own family, and the tragic rise in sectarianism elsewhere in the region.

I hear painful tales of injustice and oppression from friends and family in Palestine, Muslim and Christian alike. There is no disagreement among them that Israel is to blame for their woes. That is not to say that a utopia exists between Palestinians, but this is not the case in any society.

“Of course there are some cases” of Muslim-Christian tensions, “but people exaggerate them, especially on the Christian right,” said Jerusalem Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, highlighting the irony of those (particularly in the West) who share the same faith as Palestinian Christians, but distort their suffering for Israel’s benefit.

Israeli treatment of Christians

While Israel feigns concern for Christians in the Holy Land, its record towards them is dismal. Last month, Palestinian Christians complained that Israeli authorities intentionally excluded them from Holy Week celebrations in Arab East Jerusalem by limiting entry permits to the week’s festivities.

A report published in July 2012 by the State Department of the United States - Israel’s staunchest ally - said its “strict closures and curfews,” as well as its West Bank barrier, were “significantly” hindering access and religious practice at Christian holy sites.

It pointed to “increased” reports “of Christian clergy, nuns, and other religious workers unable to secure residency or work permits,” and to Israeli authorities “complicating clergy travel,” disrupting their work, and causing “financial difficulties for their sponsoring religious organizations.”

Christians have also been targeted on the streets. Haaretz reported in Nov. 2011 that ultra-Orthodox Jews were cursing and spitting at Christian clergy in Jerusalem’s Old City “as a matter of routine.” In Feb. 2012, the newspaper reported that such incidents had become so frequent that some priests had stopped visiting parts of the Old City.

Vandalism of churches by Jewish extremists is also on the rise. “Death to Christianity”, “Jesus, son of a whore”, “Jesus is a bastard”, “Jesus is dead” and “Mary was a prostitute” are just some of the insults that have been spray-painted on various churches.

This month, the Roman Catholic church demanded Israeli action after Vatican-owned offices in East Jerusalem were sprayed with “death to Arabs and Christians and those who hate Israel.” The next day, another church in Jerusalem was defaced.

Divide and rule

It may not be a coincidence that a resurgence in pro-Israel propaganda regarding persecution of Palestinian Christians comes when the state itself is attempting to split its Christian Arab citizens from their Muslim counterparts, and to hinder rapprochement between Palestinian political factions, in typical divide-and-rule fashion.

Israel has done the same with the Druze community. Employing such tactics with Palestinian Christian citizens may be a counter to increasing Druze dissent against separation from the Palestinian community.

In February, Israel’s parliament passed a law distinguishing between its Muslim and Christian Palestinian citizens, identifying the latter as “a non-Arab minority group.” Israel is also ramping up efforts to recruit Palestinian Christian citizens into the army.

In response, representatives of Orthodox Christian national institutions said last month that “those who call for recruitment and encourage Christian youth to join the occupation army do not represent the church and do not represent Christians, of whom the majority reject the army recruitment in its entirety.” Christian youths who receive recruitment forms should “shred them and throw them in the bin,” they added.

Though a minority, Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian nation and its struggle for liberty, justice, equality and human rights. They behave as such, should be treated as such, and attempts to create divisions between the Palestinian people - whether by politics or religion - must be resisted.

Pelham concluded aptly: “So before those Israel lobbies send me another email celebrating Israel’s integration of Christians and Palestinian persecution of them, perhaps they might take a leaf out of the Gospels. ‘First cast the log out of your own eye, that you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.’ Or for those who find it hard to take non-Jewish scriptures seriously, try Proverbs - ‘Deceive not with thy lips’.”

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.