Church leaders say Israelis are tightening vise

Second in a two-part series

By PAT MORRISON

Like many of the other 100 or so protesters outside the University of Toledo, he held a sign reading “End the Occupation.” But there was something distinctive in his passionate presence that sparked this reporter’s special interest. Perhaps it was his age -- he was about 40 -- or his red hair and freckled face that set him apart from the younger dark-eyed, dark-haired students of Middle Eastern descent, some wearing the traditional checkered Palestinian keffiyeh.

He was quick to explain the sense of urgency he felt about the deteriorating situation in Israel and Palestine. And for him, more than politics was at stake.

“I’m Jewish,” the man said. “At least a dozen of my family members died in the Warsaw ghetto. I believe that Israel has a right to exist, a right to its security. But what I see Israel doing to Palestinians is exactly the same thing that happened to us under the Nazis. The [Palestinian] people are totally cut off. There are roadblocks, huge ditches isolating the villages. There’s virtual house arrest, so that people can’t get food, can’t get medical care, can’t get to school. Land is being confiscated with no legal recourse. Palestinian-owned homes and businesses are being destroyed. And if we don’t say no to it, it’s only going to get worse.

“We Americans need to realize that our tax dollars and our foreign policy are supporting the extermination of a people. We let the Holocaust happen because nobody believed what was going on. Well, here’s one Jew to say, ‘We’re doing it to another people, all over again.’ The only thing different? So far, no ovens.”

The man gave his name, but asked that it not be used. “I’d like to get back into Israel one of these days,” he explained, with a slight chuckle.

That was two years ago. Some might wonder if today the red-haired Toledo protester knows how sadly prophetic he was.

Every so often, some newsworthy event in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict catches Americans’ interest for more than the usual sound bite’s length -- such as when Bethlehem cancels Christmas to protest the Israeli military occupation of the city. But most of the time the message running beneath the news appears to be “same old, same old” sequence: Palestinian suicide bomber, innocent civilians killed; Israeli retaliation, innocent civilians killed; Palestinian retaliation to the retaliation, Israeli military occupation or curfew imposed, homes demolished. The cycle seems endless.

Tightening the noose

But to those living through the situation, and to observers from the outside, this phase of the intifada isn’t just more of the same. It’s getting worse. And, some say, there is a plan in place to systematically drive the Palestinian people, Christians as well as Muslims, from their homeland.

When Israeli Defense Forces rolled their tanks into Bethlehem in November, residents knew they were there for the long haul. The city was effectively under house arrest for more than a month, with lengthy curfews that kept residents from working, going to school, buying food or getting medical care (see NCR, Dec. 20) When Christmas approached, Christian civic and religious leaders staged a formal protest; all public Christmas festivities and outdoor decorations were cancelled. Only the religious celebration of Christmas in the town where Jesus was born was left intact.

In his Christmas homily in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine, next to the Church of the Nativity that marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem called on Palestinian Christians to reflect on love. But he also had a stern message for the Israeli government occupying his homeland.

“It is not impossible to love, to love all those with whom we live, all our brothers and sisters, Muslims, Jews, Druzes and Christians, and even the Israeli soldiers who impose upon us siege, curfew and humiliations,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah told the congregation. He urged Palestinian Christians to practice patience, and as Christians continue to emigrate from the region in record numbers (see related story on Page 4), he pleaded with them “not to weaken and [not] to escape. ... We do everything that must be done to put an end to the occupation and to the sufferings that ensue from it.”

Sabbah, the first native Palestinian to head the Latin church in Jerusalem, pulled no punches in his message to Israelis. Acknowledging their own suffering and loss of innocent life in the ongoing bloodshed, Sabbah nevertheless pointedly told Israel that its peace and security would come about only when they end the occupation that fuels Palestinian violence.

“We tell you that the ways of peace are not those that you follow. ... In your hand, not in the power of your army, is the capacity to stop all what you say to be violence and terror. Your armies won wars and until today didn’t win peace,” he said, calling for new Israeli leadership that can demonstrate “new visions able to make peace that ... can procure your security, while granting to Palestinians their rights, their liberty and their security.”

But judging from activity along the military landscape in the West Bank, there’s no sign Israel is about to listen to the patriarch. If peaceful coexistence within Israel is the Christian churches’ theme, it doesn’t appear to be embraced by Ariel Sharon’s government. Har Homa, the largest illegal settlement to date -- and according to the Oslo Accords, they’re all illegal -- is ready to open, placing more than 6,500 housing units for an estimated 50,000 Jewish settlers smack in the middle of Palestinian territory.

While the Israelis call the settlement Har Homa, the local Palestinians know it as Jabal Abu Ghneim, literally “hill for grazing.” In fact, this is the site the Christmas story records when it describes “shepherds in the hills, watching their flocks.” The settlement construction is the in-your-face equivalent of confiscating the shepherds’ fields of Bethlehem, driving out the Christian community that has lived there for centuries.

There’s no question that Har Homa is illegal. In July 1997, the United Nations General Assembly voted 131-3 to condemn the construction project. Even Washington, normally supportive of Israeli activities, criticized plans to expand the settlement in March 2001. But the project continued, and under the Sharon government, expanded even more.

An American priest who has worked in the Holy Land for 40 years and lived there for the past dozen says that Sharon’s basic agenda is to buy more time. “The more time he has, the more the settlements keep growing -- and not just the settlements, but their so-called ‘buffer zones,’ which means they can expand indefinitely.”

Settlements, demolitions increase

Now, as if the settlement expansion is not enough, Israel has served demolition notices for hundreds of homes in Beit Sahour -- including a housing project of the Greek Orthodox church built on church-owned land (and with a 99-year lease).

Beit Sahour, the largest Christian village in the West Bank, is down the hill from Har Homa. In 1996, to stem the flood of emigration and provide affordable housing for Beit Sahour residents, the Greek Orthodox church began construction of 15 four-story buildings on five acres of land. When completed, the project would total 120 apartments. The seven completed buildings are currently home to two dozen families.

Beit Sahour Mayor Fuad Kokaly launched a legal appeal before the Israeli Supreme Court, which has issued a temporary injunction to halt the demolition. Kokaly, who has urged the worldwide Christian community to take action in support of the village, says the demolition papers are boilerplate Israeli legalese for confiscating and destroying any Palestinian property the government chooses.

Home demolitions by the Israelis are daily occurences in the West Bank and Gaza -- several more took place in the days following Christmas.

“They just want to wear us down, to wear us out, hoping we will go away,” said an area priest in a Dec. 28 phone interview with NCR. “They try to say this is about security, to eliminate Islamic militants. So what is their excuse in harassing Christian villages? There are no terrorists, no militants here. There are school children and elderly people and families who want to live in peace. It makes no sense -- except they want everyone out but them[selves.]”

An American who has worked in Israel for more than a decade concurred. “In Jenin [site of an incursion by Israeli forces that left more than 100 civilians dead] they kept the press out, so no one could document what really happened. If they clamp down on not just the Palestinians, but Americans and all non-Israelis, the government has carte blanche to do whatever it wants,” he said.

Does that include forced, large-scale deportations of Palestinians? “I wouldn’t be at all surprised, although the government denies it.”

The Israelis have succeeded in doing it elsewhere, and it is not accidental. According to Robert Blecher, writing in the Winter issue of Middle East Report, the “transfer” of the Palestinians has begun, and there’s strong support for it: “A substantial portion of the Israeli public agrees that the very presence of Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank constitutes a threat to the future of the Jewish state.” In a March 2002 poll administered by Tel Aviv University, Blecher reports, 46 percent of Israeli Jews supported the transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank and 31 percent advocated the same treatment for Palestinian citizens of Israel; 60 percent said they supported “encouraging” Palestinian Israelis to leave Israel; a full 80 percent objected to the inclusion of Palestinian Israelis in decisions of national importance.

According to Blecher, assistant professor of history at the University of Richmond, “transfer” -- the euphemism referring to expulsion of Palestinians from Israel-Palestine, “enjoys more legitimacy today than it has since 1948, the year of the state of Israel’s creation and the first Arab-Israeli war.”

The pro-expulsion mood within Israel has gained in visibility in the past year, with billboards, taxis, and radio and television shows advocating ethnic cleansing in everything from graffiti to Madison-Avenue style posters: “Transfer = Security,” “Expel the Arabs!” “No Arabs, No Attacks,” “Jordan is the Palestinian State.”

For Palestinians -- as well as Israeli Jews -- who’ve lived through other times, there’s an ominous sense of déjà vu. Palestinians remember the forced expulsion of 300,000 of their people during the 1967 war, some deported on buses marked “Free Passage to Amman [Jordan].” For Jews who oppose the occupation and their government’s direction, there’s the terrible memory of other “transfers” during the Nazi era.

The fundamental root of the problem -- and the momentum behind “transfer” and ethnic cleansing, according to an American professor who has lived in the Holy Land for over a decade -- is the radical form of Zionism that maintains that the land belongs only to the Jews. “Of course there are all kinds of variations of Zionism, but this is the most extreme and it’s gaining in popularity. And at the same extreme [among Palestinians] is Hamas, which wants to ‘drive all Jews into the sea,’ but of course Hamas doesn’t have Israel’s military power or U.S. funding.”

But the world, which ignored the forced deportation and internment of millions of Jews during World War II, appears to have selective amnesia in the current situation in Israel-Palestine as well. The last residents of the West Bank village of Yanoun took their remaining belongings from their destroyed homes and abandoned their village Oct. 18. The Israeli government has confiscated property of the Armenian church at Baron Der, which the church has held since 1641. Despite village protests, the demolition order for Beit Sahour homes still stands. And increasing numbers of civilians, from newborn infants to a 93-year-old grandmother, seem to have been direct targets of Israeli troops, killed not by shrapnel or in bombings, but by rifle fire.

Daily reports from international observers, such as the Mennonite-sponsored Christian Peacemaker Teams, document escalating violence in areas like Hebron, where settlers, many of them children and teens, continue to attack Palestinians and even unarmed international observers, all with impunity. Israeli Defence Forces on the scene frequently do not intervene at all, and sometimes have appeared to incite further violence.

Hebron, home to the most violent settler movement in the region, is the target of an orchestrated effort to isolate and choke off Palestinian homes by expanding the circle of settlements and access roads. Recent incursions have left one Palestinian family on a tiny piece of their original land, their orchard and olive trees uprooted and burned. Despite the family’s participation in the Peacemaker Team’s Campaign for Secure Dwellings since the program’s beginning, and monitoring by team’s staff, the family is now totally cut off by settler roads and threatened by continual settler harassment.

Bethlehem the barometer

No West Bank community is a better barometer of the situation than Bethlehem. “We’ve been under curfew more often, and for longer periods, than any other West Bank town,” said Br. Neil Kieffe, one of the De La Salle Christian Brothers who staff Bethlehem University. The native of St. Joseph, Mo., is vice president for academic affairs, completing his 12th year at the university. In the school’s 28-year history, he says, the last two years have been the most difficult, particularly with the frequent Israeli military occupation of the town, “and it doesn’t show any signs of easing up.”

Betty Scholten is a Catholic from Washington, D.C., who recently returned to the states after two weeks as a member of a delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams reserve corps. Visiting Bethlehem and staying with Palestinian Christians in the weeks before Christmas, she experienced the terror, fatigue and hopelessness the residents know daily -- being turned away at checkpoints, climbing over back roads to find alternate passage, then noting the eerie silence and absence of life on the streets. “Only a few children were brave enough to defy the curfew and the soldiers,” she said, but eventually, desperate to get their story out to the world, the residents came forward, first waving tentatively from rooftops or calling out greetings. “Occasionally a door would open a crack to reveal a family, desperate to make a connection,” she told NCR.

While staying with their Palestinian host family, the Christian Peacemaker Team learned that a house in the neighborhood would be blown up that night by the Israeli forces. Scholten said, “I’ll never forget seeing the frightened 10-year-old son clinging to his father, asking, ‘Will we be safe?’ What could his father say?”

The St. George Restaurant near Manger Square is normally packed from Christmas Eve until the wee hours of Christmas morning. This year, three-fourths of the tables were empty, the only customers the journalists and photographers who descended on the town to record the historic non-Christmas. Azmi Juha, who has owned the eatery for 24 years, announced he was closing for good after Christmas -- or at least until the current intifada is over.

At the Khano brothers’ workshop, stacks of olive wood Nativity figures in various stages of carving filled several tables, unsold witnesses to a dead tourist economy. Like the Khanos, the Giacaman family has lived in Bethlehem for generations. Joseph and Mary Giacaman -- appropriate names for a Christian Arab couple from Bethlehem -- run a souvenir store near Manger Square. They closed the store three hours early on Christmas Eve. Normally the biggest night of the year for sales, receipts Dec. 24 were less than $100.

In desperation over the failing economy, some Bethlehem residents have taken their merchandise abroad to find new markets. It’s a Christian take on the proverbial “bringing the mountain to Mohammad”: If the pilgrims can’t come to Bethlehem, bring the craft items to them. One group of 600 Bethlehem-area families who comprise about 200 workshops has recently formed a cooperative, the Holy Land Christians Cooperative Society, to bring their work to the United States (see related story). Another of these entrepreneurs is Wisam Salsaa, a native of Beit Sahour whose family has been Catholic since the 13th century -- and who have been been master carvers in olive wood and mother-of-pearl for almost as long.

Salsaa, 27, was recently in the United States for a speaking engagement at the Peace Center in San Antonio. Salsaa, who holds degrees in social work and biblical tourism from Bethlehem University, is passionate about getting the word out, especially to American Christians, about the reality the Palestinian people are living under occupation. Given the dire economic straits of his people, he’s also hopeful that he can sell some craftwork while stateside and bring the money back home. “The people need to retain their dignity,” Salsaa told NCR. “Right now people who own hotels, shops, have no business. When they’re not totally unemployed they’re living on about a dollar a month in Bethlehem.”

Litany of Desperation

Like others who live and work in Palestine, Salsaa ticked off the litany of woes the region is enduring: childen who are not getting food or education, increasing domestic violence because of unemployment, the damaging psychological effects of living for extended periods in a war zone.

Unlike many Palestinians who leave, Salsaa feels a commitment to return to Palestine. “This is our land just as much as it’s the Israelis’. And we have to protect the faith here too. It’s up to us as Christians to make sure there will still be Christians here in years to come,” he said.

But he also knows it’s possible he won’t get back into his homeland. Getting out was difficult enough. Unable to leave from Tel Aviv because of military restrictions on Palestinians, Salsaa left from Jordan. Because of the numerous roadblocks and checkpoints throughout Palestine, “a trip that should have been a 35-minute drive took nine hours and three taxis.”

Americans living in Palestine like Kieffe and Palestinians like Salsaa worry that the months ahead will get worse, particularly if the United States goes to war with Iraq.

“Sharon is determined to enforce the hard line, and among most Israelis there’s a shift to the right because they will support anyone who claims to take a tough stand against violence,” said the veteran American priest who asked that his name not be used. But Sharon’s claim that a hard line ensures Israeli peace and security is sheer fallacy, he added. “More Israelis have died in the past two years than at any comparable two-year period since 1948.”

According to several Americans living in Israel, both educators and staff of nongovernmental organizations, Israel is definitely stepping up the pressure against Palestinians, and with a carefully calculated intent. “Sharon’s Likud Party desperately wants the vote, so they actually welcome more violence from Palestinians. Every new suicide bombing enables Israel to justify a more aggressive stance,” said one American who spoke with NCR in a phone interview. “It’s a cycle of cynical manipulation, designed to keep spiraling downward.”

In the meantime, Israel continues its suffocating chokehold on the Palestinian people. And Palestinian Christians continue to ask why the world, especially fellow Christians, seems to be ignoring their plight.

“Last year when whales were beached, it was on the news around the clock, and the whole world was rushing to help,” said Nancy Elias, a Catholic from Bethlehem who is on the faculty of Bethlehem University. “Where is the help for us? Why doesn’t the world pay attention to what’s happening here?”

One person paying attention is the Jewish protester whose family perished in Hitler’s “final solution.” Palestinians hope he’s not the only one.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is pmorrison@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003