Walking in a war-torn wonderland

Palestinian Santa with Israeli soldiers. Courtesy of AP/ Kevin Frayer

 Where Christians fear to tread, or have fled: an exploration into the birthplace of Christianity this Christmas.

 By Claudie Qumsieh

Beyond the tinsel, Christmas is a celebration commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. The Holy Land however has been violated by a colonial presence since the creation of Israel in 1948, in the land that was once Palestine. 

“A bulldozer arrived with soldiers. I began to argue with them not to demolish my home, so they began to beat me. As the bulldozer was to begin the demolition, I remembered that my son was sleeping inside. I ran towards the house to get him. As I ran the soldiers tried to hold me back. They began beating and kicking me. I managed to push one to the ground and ran inside to my son”

These are the words of Rodina Jabber, interviewed in the award-winning documentary, Occupation 101. This Palestinian mother’s children cannot sleep for fear that the soldiers will return. Two of her homes have been bulldozed and her land taken by Israeli settlers. Jabber’s story is not an anomaly, her story is the story of a nation. In the last 10 years Israel have destroyed about 1,000 Palestinian homes in occupied Jerusalem and displaced 5,783 individuals, including 3,109 children.

Desmond Tutu draws comparisons with South African apartheid when he thanks students for their protests against Israel:

“I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans”

One striking apartheid tool in the conflict is a wall three times as long and twice as tall as the Berlin Wall. The construction is called different names by the two sides: “The Wall” by the Palestinians, “security/anti-terrorist fence” by the Israelis. According to Israel Diplomatic Network “The security fence limits the ability of terrorist organizations to enter Israel […] making it difficult for them to carry out suicide bombing attacks within Israel“. Not only is the wall a means of oppression, the wall encroaches on Palestinian land. Israel has used it to capture valuable fertile land from the Palestinians. Although his Question of Palestine pre-dates the erection of the wall, it is a physical embodiment of what Edward Said described in 1979 as Zionist “blocking, shrinking, silencing, hemming in” of Palestinians.

As Christmas is celebrated, Palestine, the home of Christ, is forgotten. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over the cave where Jesus was said to be born, it is a sacred place for Christians. In 2002 when the Israel Defence Force (IDF) re-occupied Bethlehem, 100 people fled for safety into the Church of the Nativity. A 39 day siege followed where the entire city was punished: electricity was cut off and curfews were imposed. Outside soldiers stood with guns pointing at the church sacred to millions throughout the world as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Historically Bethlehem had been a Christian city governed largely by Christians, however Bethlehem has more recently been Islamized. The 23,000 Christians of the area have been reduced since 1990 from a 60% majority to a minority by 2001. Christian Palestinians are an oppressed minority within an oppressed majority of Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian. In the 1947 official British Mandate records 35% of Palestine’s population was Christian. Since 1948 most Christian Palestinians have fled, they now make up only 2% of the population. Although Israel blames Hamas and Islamic fundamentalists for the diminishing Christian population, in 2006 the Palestinian Centre for Research and Cultural Dialogue poll found that 90% of Christians reported having Muslim friends, 73.3% agreed that the Palestinian Authority treats Christian heritage in the city with respect and 78% said the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem was because of the Israeli occupation. I spoke to one Palestinian who explained that the root cause is the Israeli occupation which has created fundamentalism, which has in turn created more oppression for the Christians of Palestine. Seen as more Westernised, they are discriminated against as a minority within a minority. 

Jerusalem is a holy city for all three Abrahamic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. For Muslims it is the site of the first Qibla, the Dome of the rock; for Jews, Solomon’s First Temple; for Christians- Jesus’ home and the place of his crucifixion. There are 1204 synagogues 158 churches and 73 mosques within the city. This holy city has been the flashpoint of violence and oppression. In 1949 the new state of Israel’s  Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion named Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Jerusalem was at the time divided between Israel and Jordan and only West Jerusalem was considered Israel’s capital. During the 1967 Six-Day War Israel took control of East Jerusalem illegally and it remains to this day under occupation. 34 settlements have been constructed since 1967, and there is only 12 percent of the land in east Jerusalem for Palestinians, while 38 percent for the Israeli settlements and 50 percent is green areas reserved for the building and expansion of settlements. 39 Palestinian villages have been erased and 98, 000 Jerusalemites displaced.

Former Professor at Yale Mazin Qumsiyah is an advocate for Palestine and author of “Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human rights and the Israeli/Palestinian Struggle”. Qumsiyah remembers his hometown of Beit Sahur, a suburb of Bethlehem, as “An idyllic place. A place where Christians and Muslims lived and worked, side by side, for centuries. The main town mosque and church are still in the same block both in Bethlehem and Beit Sahur. We have been relentlessly bombed by Israeli occupation forces, and hundreds of families had to desert their homes. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem (Israeli Human Rights Organization), and the World Council of Churches have called this “excessive use of force” and “collective punishment” (banned by International law).”

There are 1.5 million Palestinians, half of whom are children, under siege in Gaza. 80% of whom are in abject poverty. 1.5 million people have been displaced from their homes and transformed into refugees, unable to determine their own futures.

There are about 5000 Christians in Gaza. Christmas in Gaza is celebrated on the 7th of January. Last year 300 people gathered in a small parish in Gaza where Patriarch Fouad, pastor of the Mother Church of Jerusalem, prayed “Oh Infant of Bethlehem, you who passed through Gaza in your flight to Egypt, grant us your patience, your love, your goodness. May this new year bring reconciliation, purification of intentions, a meeting of hearts, the end of divisions, the destruction of walls and the construction of the bridges of understanding, mutual forgiveness and encounter among peoples.” Fouad’s prayers for 2010 have not been answered. The people of Gaza, both Muslim and Christian, are under siege. Vital humanitarian aid is being blocked, all in the guise of anti-terrorism measures. Even glass cannot be brought in to build homes because glass is a terrorist material, according to Israel.

In 2008 Israel launched an attack on Gaza, 1400 Palestinians were killed including 300 children and 5000 were wounded. According to Amnesty International Israel breached international laws of war, having carried out attacks on civilians and civilian buildings, most notoriously a UN school. A strict blockade has prevented all movement of people and goods, the terminally ill cannot leave for medical assistance. The people of Gaza are imprisoned.  

Despite international condemnation, 2 years have passed and Gaza is still suffering. Last month Amnesty released a report called “Dashed Hopes: Continuation of the Gaza”.  Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said: “The so-called ‘easing’ of the Gaza blockade does not change the fact that there’s still a cruel and illegal blockade collectively punishing the entire civilian population. The only real easing has been the easing of pressure on the Israeli authorities to end this cruel and illegal practice.”

The international community have verbally condemned the treatment of the people of Gaza, but there is all too much rhetoric and too little action. One way of protest is divestment which was used against Apartheid South Africa. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign aims to pressurise Israel to comply with international law, including withdrawal from the land that it has been illegally occupied since 1967.

American Israeli public affairs committee (AIPAC) According to If Americans Knew, a group formed to inform and educate the American public, Israel “has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War ll. Total direct U.S. aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of America’s entire foreign aid budget”. Congressional Research Service’s conservative estimate of total US aid to Israel from 1949 through 2009 is $106.1647 billion. U.S has been funding colonialism and apartheid for 61 years.

This time last year  “A Moment of Truth” was published by Palestinian Christians who criticised “theologians in the West who try to attach a biblical and theological legitimacy to the Israeli infringement of our rights, urge for non violent resistance tools such as boycott and divestments and call for a stop on Israeli ‘racism and apartheid’.” The point is that people are discriminated against because of their race and religion and this is supposedly justified by ancient scripture. They go on to say “in the absence of all hope, we cry out our cry of hope. We believe in God, good and just. We believe that God’s goodness will finally triumph over the evil of hate and of death that still persist in our land. We will see here ‘a new land’ and ‘a new human being’, capable of rising up in the spirit to love each one of his or her brothers and sisters.”

European collective guilt for the atrocities of the Holocaust has traditionally permitted the colonialism of Palestinian land. There was a reluctance to criticise Israel policy for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic. Even Jews who oppose Zionism are described as self-loathing. It is forgotten that it was the British Balfour Declaration in 1917 that gave support to Zionist Jews to form a state in Arab land and it is the United States’ continued support for Israel that permits systemic injustice. The funding of colonialism and what has been described as “state terrorism”. Whilst the UN and international bodies condemn the atrocities, the world is complacent and allows it to continue.  

Peace and Human Rights activists are calling on “all people of conscience” to visit Palestine this Christmas. Demand an end to the suffering inflicted on the innocent, demand an end to the illegal collective punishment and apartheid in the land where Christianity was born. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

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