The Cross, the Crescent and the Star: Arab Christian-Muslim Relations and the Politics of Israeli Occupation

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THE Shin Bet(*), they say, is fomenting discord between Arab Christians and Muslims in the Occupied Territories. The pass laws, for example, are being used to lever the two communities apart. West Bank identity cards identify the religion of the bearer. Increasingly, when the soldiers round up Arab youths for checks, the Christians are allowed to go. The Muslims are detained for often lengthy and aggressive questioning, and draw unpleasant and inaccurate conclusions about the reasons for the Christians' release. The Christians are muttered against in the villages. The mutterings say that they are in the pay of the occupier, and the mutterings become shouts, and the shouts become Islamic, for the brand of Islam bubbling up in the heat and ignominy of frustrated Arab dreams is good at shouting.

About ten per cent of Palestinian Arabs are Christians. Relations with the Muslims have been calm and fraternal for centuries. Saladin and Suleiman were great gentlemen, and their manners were hereditary. The disasters of 1948 and 1967 did not end Muslim-Christian cordiality. It was not the stress of occupation per se which caused the rift. The occupiers, at first, did not discriminate. Christian areas in Israel were depopulated as thoroughly as Muslim ones. And neither, at first, did the occupied discriminate. There was no reason to. The Christians have been unimpeachable Palestinian nationalists. They were prominent in building the infrastructure of the embryonic state-in-waiting in Jordan and Lebanon. Many Christians chaired the meetings of the Intifada committees. Hanan Ashrawi is a Christian. So is George Habash, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a movement not noted for appeasement towards Israel.

Palestinian Muslims have traditionally lived in happy religious moderation, unmoved by the fierce wild devotion of Gulf Islam: benignly uninterested in the pious debates of the Meccan clerics. But nonetheless the Shi-ite Khomeni, speaking the language of the dispossessed, had a welcome amongst Sunnis in Palestine. He won vocal handfuls of faithful in the West Bank, and a vocal multitude in the Gaza Strip.

The Islamic appeal was to the young. It was simple, and painted the Palestinian revolution in primary colours, which looked good in the sun and dust of Gaza. The old slogans, which 40 years of war had discredited, were revived, and given Koranic authority. It was no longer absurd to believe that the Arabs could drive the Jews into the sea. If Allah willed it, it would happen, and will it He most certainly did. It was a lot easier to articulate Palestinian claims and aspirations in the language of Jihad than in the socialist sophistries of the PLO. The young men of Gaza are suckled on stories of |their' villages near Jaffa or Ramle, abandoned by their grandfathers in 1948. They grow up watching soldiers patrolling the refugee camps. Often their schools are closed by the military authorities. Their secular education is rudimentary and does not equip them with scepticism. Their Islamic education is skimpy but dogmatic. They learn from the pamphleteers, not from learned expositors of the Koran. They spend their young adult years waiting at street corners in the hope of being picked for a day's labouring by a Tel Aviv building contractor. Humiliation and resentment come early. The fact of occupation has made normal ambitions seem futile. The doors to advancement within Israel itself are firmly shut. Assimilation is not an option. Only the doors of the mosques are always open. So Palestinian youth is tinder in the fundamentalist flame, and bigger institutional wood is beginning to catch fire.

The Christians are getting scorched. Arab identity is increasingly being defined in Islamic terms. All schemes of pan-Arab unity were necessarily secular. Palestinian Christians are realizing the wisdom of the old Baathist religious non-alignment. They do not know where, within the Middle East, they can turn. …