Things are continuing to hot up at one of the most explosive holy sites in the world. Israeli claims to the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa, in the heart of Jerusalem’s occupied Old City, have turned it into a flashpoint of clashes which have intensified over recent months. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned in his address to the United Nations General Assembly that Israel security operations at the site could lead to a religious war.
For many, the Palestine-Israel conflict is already a religious war fought between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Muslims. However, this narrative fails to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land at the hands of Israel, which began as soon as the state was established; 35 per cent of all the Christians in pre-1948 Mandate Palestine were made refugees in the Nakba (Catastrophe) when Israel was created in their land.
This suffering continues today, where Palestinian Christians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem have lived under the same occupation as Palestinian Muslims since 1967.
In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, home to the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s major religious sites, as well as a large chunk of the occupied Palestinian territories’ Christian population, the scars of the occupation are clearly visible. The 8 metre-high separation wall, which takes in approximately 10 per cent of the Bethlehem governorate, has severed Palestinians from Jerusalem, a city of great significance for Christians. Entrance to the city is subject to a strict permit system which keeps it out of bounds for most Palestinians.
According to OCHA, more than 85 per cent of the land in the Bethlehem governorate has been designated as “Area C”, which means that it falls under the complete control of the Israeli authorities. It also means that the vast majority of it is off limits for Palestinian development. Meanwhile, 100,000 Jewish settlers have moved into the area, living in around 20 illegal settlements or outposts.
Over in Gaza, the Christian population does not suffer any less than their Muslim neighbours from the siege and multiple Israeli incursions on the enclave. The number of Christians has declined by nearly a fifth in under two decades, with more than half of them “refugees”; a third of these have no income and many are suffering from chronic illness.
Israel’s primary goal is to “Judaise” Jerusalem in order to create, in Israeli rights group B’Tselem’s words, “a demographic and geographic situation that will thwart any future attempt to challenge Israeli sovereignty over the city.” As non-Jews, Palestinian Christians suffer from Israel’s attempt to stamp a Jewish identity across Jerusalem; other identities have to be erased simultaneously for this to happen. To achieve this goal, Israel routinely destroys Palestinian homes and structures and revokes Palestinian residency permits; there is also official discrimination against Palestinian neighbourhoods, whereas illegal Jewish settlements are encouraged.
In Israel proper, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed hard to introduce a law which would effectively “legally anchor” Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” By tying Israel’s identity only to one group of citizens, it gives them constitutional privileges to which no other community can have access. This is problematic for the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, 11 per cent of whom are Christians and already face discrimination at the hands of the Israeli authorities.
At the same time, the government has been seeking to create artificial boundaries between otherwise cohesive populations. Last year, moves to enlist Palestinian Christians into the Israeli military and the passing of a law giving Muslim and Christian Palestinians separate representation on a national employment commission were seen as efforts to create internal divisions within the Palestinian population in Israel.
Back in 1948, when Israel was established, Christians in Palestine made up around 18 per cent of the population. Now it is around only two per cent. Christians are the fastest shrinking segment of the Israeli population. The occupied Palestinian territories are also facing an exodus of Christians. For example, in 1947, Christians made up 80 per cent of the population in Bethlehem. Today, Christians make up only around 20 per cent of the city’s population, with the past decade alone seeing over 10 per cent of Christians leaving for pastures new overseas.
The Israeli government and its supporters have tried to blame the exodus on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. However, according to surveys conducted in recent years, it is the Israeli occupation and the difficulties that are associated with it, such as economic hardship, which are cited as the main push factor behind Christian emigration. If the global Christian community wishes to ensure a Christian presence in historically-significant places such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem for the foreseeable future, its members must unite in their support for the Palestinian cause.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.