Magazine article The American Conservative

Barriers to Peace: Christians as Well as Muslims Suffer from Palestine's Occupation

Magazine article The American Conservative

Barriers to Peace: Christians as Well as Muslims Suffer from Palestine's Occupation

Article excerpt

TEL AVIV--Ben Gurion looks like any other airport. But the land beyond exudes history. Much of the country is liberal and modern. Step onto a Tel Aviv street and you are in a frenetic Mediterranean city. The bygone generations who created this new nation are lost in the mists of time.

Then visit Yad Vashem. Israel cannot be understood apart from the Shoah--the Holocaust. The museum, carved into a Jerusalem hillside, brings alive man's utter inhumanity to man. The Shoah was a dramatic accelerant to Israel's formation, an unimaginable enormity that reinforced the long-standing Zionist movement.

The understandable determination "never again" helps explain the harshness, even ruthlessness of Israel's creation: the terrorism against British colonial rule, the ethnic cleansing of resident Arabs. The cycle of violence that arose in reaction helps explain the harshness, even ruthlessness of Israel's policies today--occupation of Palestinian territories, threats of preventive war against Iran.

This history also helps account for unofficial Israeli hostility--"discriminatory practices," in State Department-speak--against Christians who come for reasons other than to spend money sightseeing or time embracing Israeli politicians. Try to evangelize and you will discover what it means to be a Jewish State.

Israel's Arab Christians are a people without a country. To the majority of Israelis, Arab Christians are Arabs-citizens, perhaps, but not to be fully trusted. To Muslims, Arab Christians are Christians--a minority in Israel, perhaps, but linked to the West and especially America.

Occupying this uncomfortable position is Melkite Catholic Archbishop Abuna Elias Chacour. A warm, friendly raconteur with an impressive white beard, he promotes peaceful cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. But he also bears witness to the price of Israel's creation, having been forced as a child from his largely Christian village by victorious Israeli forces.

Archbishop Chacour is frustrated with reflexive support in Washington for Israeli policies. He asks: "Why does friendship with Jews mean enmity with Palestinians?" He urges Americans to engage Israelis and Palestinians alike: "We need a common friend."

A similar message comes from Archbishop Fouad Twal, head of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. He warns that indigenous Christians, whom he calls "living stones," are disappearing. Christian pilgrims may eventually find only empty, lifeless tourist sites. In fact, I was one of just six people attending early services at St. George's Episcopal Cathedral in Jerusalem.

Why the decline of Christianity? Justus Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs points to rising Islamization in the Middle East and crimes committed against Palestinian Christians, especially in the Gaza Strip under Hamas. "Any institution, even the YMCA, can become a target," he says.

The abuses are real, but they have not been systematic as in Iraq and elsewhere. Palestinian Christians themselves emphasize Israel's policies. While Israel is a democratic oasis in what remains, despite the "Arab Spring," a dictatorial desert, Palestinians suffer under Israeli military rule. At dinner in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, frustrated Palestinian Christians spoke of inconvenience, hardship, and discrimination.

One family can no longer farm ancestral land since it is on the other side of Israel's security wall. Several families used to worship in Jerusalem, just 15 minutes away, but now are denied permission to visit even on holy days. Checkpoints can add hours to the most routine trip. I visited an orphanage that often lacks water--never a problem at nearby Israeli settlements. The daily indignities add up under occupation, where everything ultimately is subject to someone else's control.

Indeed, enduring harassment is a way of life for Palestinians. Dan Koski, a Minnesota policeman who fell in love with a Palestinian woman and moved to the West Bank, says he has come to fear seeing a police car or hearing a helicopter. …

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