During this Christmas season, we reflect on the Christians who are free to practice their faith in Israel, and on those who suffer under Palestinian rule.
The birthplace of Jesus is facing one of the darkest chapters in its history, according to Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh’s just-delivered annual Christmas address, and of course it’s all the fault of the Jews.
The pro-Palestinian Middle East Online reports that the Roman Catholic mayor, a 71-year-old Marxist former “activist” in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), sees Bethlehem today as little more than “a big prison,” thanks to the Israeli security fence. “Usually around Christmastime Bethlehem used to be packed with tourists and pilgrims,” the mayor said. “Now, as you can see, the little town seems to be so quiet under the shadow of this wall.” The wall has devastated Palestinian farmers as well, the mayor said, adding that acres of arable land were confiscated to make way for the barrier’s cement blocks and guard towers. “Many Palestinian farmers are denied access to reach their lands to collect their harvest,” Batarseh said. “Many others have no access to markets to sell their produce.” The dwindling tourist numbers, Israeli closures and the severe limits on Palestinian work permits are, he asserts, the reason why unemployment in Bethlehem has soared to 65 percent. Meanwhile, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government promised Bethlehem municipal authorities $50,000 for Christmas decorations, but the money has yet to arrive. Still, Batarseh, who despite his Christian faith is a Hamas ally who holds office thanks to the votes of councilors from the radical movement, refused to criticize the ruling Islamists.
Before analyzing the claims of Mayor Batarseh in detail, a word about the man. Batarseh’s own militant faction, the PLFP, is guided by Marxism-Leninism and, together with other left-wing Palestinian organizations, claims to be struggling to build a socialist society. Its founder, Greek Orthodox George Habash, viewed the “liberation” of Palestine as an integral part of the world Communist revolution. In May 2000 Habash resigned as general secretary of the PLFP because of failing health and was replaced by Abu Ali Mustafa.
The PFLP advocates armed insurrection and perpetrates media-oriented attacks, including the hijacking of planes, to bring the Palestinian cause to public attention and to fulfill its dream of annihilating Israel. The PFLP hijacked an Israeli aircraft in 1968. It abducted and threatened four American journalists in Beirut in 1981 (two from the New York Times, one from the Washington Post and one from Newsweek). PFLP members have continued to perpetrate terrorist acts through the years. A partial list of additional PFLP attacks over the years includes:
* the hijacking of three commercial airliners belonging to Western countries (September 6, 1970): three planes were blown up after the passengers were evacuated, while an attempt to hijack an Israeli El Al airliner the same day was foiled;
* the assassination of Israeli Minister of Tourism Rehavam Ze’evi, the only Israeli politician to be successfully targeted during the Palestinians’ “Al-Aqsa Intifada,” in a Jerusalem hotel two weeks before the 9/11 attacks in 2001;
* a suicide bombing in the village of Karnei Shomrom in February 2002, which left 3 Israeli dead and another 25 wounded;
* and a suicide bombing attack at a bus station at the Geha junction in Tel Aviv on Christmas Day 2003, which killed 3 Israelis.
The PFLP’s political leadership resides in the PA-administered territory and in Syria, and its operational-terrorist wing (the “Shahid [“martyr”] Abu ‘Ali Mustafa Battalions”) works inside the PA. Here is the wing's crest: it gives little doubt about the PLFP’s means and end.
So much for Mayor Batarseh, whose Christmas message closes with these words: “Yet we keep holding deep faith in peace,” he said. “We pray that the star of the nativity will shine on Bethlehem once again.” What of his substantive claims, which remind one of Jimmy Carter’s recent argument that the Israeli security fence is today’s version of apartheid? It turns out these claims are as vacuous as is Carter’s screed. Consider:
Israel’s Ministry of Tourism is operating complimentary shuttles running every half hour from Mar Elias Monastery in southern Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. To help ease pilgrims’ travels, Israeli security has arranged to check passports before travelers disembark from the shuttles. The measures were implemented this year to prevent traffic jams at the Rachel border crossing between Jerusalem and Bethlehem as 15,000 to 18,000 pilgrims are expected to travel between the two cities this Christmas. As in years past, the Municipality of Jerusalem and the Jewish National Fund distributed free Christmas trees on December 21 at Jaffa Gate Square in Jerusalem. Additionally, [Christian] Israelis will be allowed to drive in and out of Bethlehem with their private cars to attend holiday festivities in the West Bank.
According to Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog (whose predecessor was murdered by Batarseh's PLFP), “The ministry is doing everything it can to assist believers to obtain the greatest possible access to Christian sites in general and to Bethlehem in particular. Beyond our desire to make things easier for tourists, we are aware of the importance of tourism for Bethlehem and the Palestinian economy and are working in complete cooperation with the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and the police to show maximum consideration for tourists during the holiday.” Herzog announced on December 19 that Defense Minister Amir Peretz had endorsed travel for 500 Palestinian Christians from Gaza to the West Bank.
Additionally, Herzog stated that he has approved permits for Palestinian guides from Bethlehem to conduct tours in Israel (for Christian tourists).
* Since 2000, more than 1,000 people in Israel have been murdered in Palestinian terrorist attacks. That number does not include those who have been permanently maimed. The security fence, which began construction in 2002, has prevented innumerable attacks and saved the lives of countless innocent civilians.
* Statistics indicate that last Christmas, nearly 146,000 Christians lived in Israel, 2.1 percent of her population. Meanwhile, in the PA, the Christian population has been on the decline for years. Currently, Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem comprise less than two percent of the total Palestinian population, less than in Israel! Christians living under the Palestinian Authority have fled in recent years due to economic deterioration and the second intifada. Islamic violence aimed at the dwindling Christian population in the last few months has led to a further population decline.
* Since the Hamas-led government took control of the territories early in 2006, Islamic violence against Christians has increased. In early May, shortly after the Hamas government was formed, a fatwa was issued against the YMCA in the West Bank town of Qalqilya. Hamas had won a number of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in the town. After taking power, Islamic clerics demanded the YMCA be shuttered because of the dwindling Christian population in Qalqilya. When the YMCA remained open, unknown gunmen set fire to the building in September.
* In mid-September, after Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about medieval Islam, Palestinian Islamic militants waged the most violent attacks against Christian holy sites in the PA territories in recent years. On September 15, 2006, grenades were thrown at the oldest church in Gaza. On September 16, firebombs were hurled at five different churches throughout the PA. On September 17, in Tulkarm, a 170-year-old church was burned to the ground.
* “Most of the Christians here are either in the process of leaving, planning to leave or thinking of leaving,” said Sami Awad, executive director of the Holy Land Trust. A local engineer in Mayor Batarseh’s Bethlehem, Bernard Bassil, added, “With the problems from the economy where Palestinians don’t get any money from the government, there are no jobs to go round. And we know that, if a job becomes available, it will go to a Muslim, not a Christian.” In 1990, under Israeli administration, Christians comprised nearly 60 percent of the total Palestinian population in the Bethlehem region. Palestinian Christians began to leave in large numbers after 1995, when the Palestinian Authority gained control of the city. Then-PA Chairman Yasser Arafat altered the municipal borders of Bethlehem in order to incorporate 30,000 Muslims from nearby refugee camps as well as members of the Ta’amarah Bedouin tribe. Arafat also encouraged Muslims from Hebron to relocate to Bethlehem to change the religious status quo. Many Christians fled the town and moved abroad, including some whose families had lived there for hundreds of years. About 150,000 Palestinians today reside in the greater Bethlehem municipality: just 25,000 are Christians.
* Hamas has announced that Jews and Christians will not be allowed to live in a future Palestine unless they are prepared to accept Dhimmi status, as we observed in an article a year ago. Jews are not allowed to become citizens of Jordan, either. Of course, Christians and Muslims are full-fledged citizens of Israel. Which countries, Mr. Carter, practice apartheid?
Yes, it’s a shame a fence had to be built to protect Israelis from invasion by murderers from the Palestinian Authority. These murderers have come from Bethlehem as from elsewhere in the PA. On February 22, 2004, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the terrorist group associated with current PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, dispatched Muhammed Za’ul from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. He detonated a bomb strapped to his body on Egged bus No. 14A in Jerusalem, killing eight and wounding more than 60, 11 of them high school students. On March 29, 2003, Iat Alacharas, 23, from Dehaisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem killed two civilians and injured 22 when she detonated her explosives belt at a supermarket in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood. On April 1, 2004, the IDF raided the Dehaisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem to arrest a number of terrorists, including Palestinian Security personnel who were planning to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians. Twelve terrorists, most of them from Fatah Tanzim, had hidden in a psychiatric hospital, which act is itself yet another violation of international law. The October 16, 2005, terrorist attack that killed two cousins, Matat Rosenfeld Adler and Kineret Mandel, as well as 14-year-old Oz Ben Meir, was perpetrated by men who fled to the Bethlehem village of El-Aroub. We could go on and on. Access to Israel from Bethlehem must be controlled.
Merry Christmas, Mayor Batarseh. Merry Christmas to all those Christians allowed to practice their faith in Israel, and to all those who suffer under Palestinian rule. Peace on Earth, and may peace reign in Israel, thanks to its life-saving fence.
[The authors thank The Israel Project for its contribution to this essay. The Israel Project provided research to the authors and gave them advance approval to use it in any manner they deemed fit.]
Michael I. Krauss is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Both are adjunct fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.