A Palestinian man wearing a Santa Claus costume is confronted by an Israeli soldier during a demonstration in village near Bethlehem, 19 December. Photo: Getty
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If Mary and Joseph tried to reach Bethlehem today, they would get stuck at an Israeli checkpoint

Why is it that the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, or countries such as Sudan, has attracted the attention and anger of politicians in the west, yet the Christians of Palestine don’t get a look-in?

’Tis the season of Nativity scenes. But here’s a question to consider: would Joseph and Mary even have been able to reach Bethlehem if they were making that same journey today?

How would that carpenter and his pregnant wife have circumnavigated the Kafka­esque network of Israeli settlements, roadblocks and closed military zones in the occupied West Bank? Would Mary have had to experience labour or childbirth at a checkpoint, as one in ten pregnant Palestinian women did between 2000 and 2007 (resulting in the death of at least 35 newborn babies, according to the Lancet)?

“If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed,” declared Father Ibrahim Shomali, a Catholic priest of the city’s Beit Jala parish, in December 2011. “Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists.”

Three years on, nothing has changed. Bethlehem today is surrounded on three sides by Israel’s eight-metre-high concrete wall, cutting it off from Jerusalem just six miles to the north; the city is also encircled by 22 illegal Israeli settlements, including Nokdim – home to Israel’s far-right foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman (the only foreign minister in the world who doesn’t live inside the borders of his own country).

The biblical birthplace of Christ has had large chunks of land confiscated and colonised and its tourism-dependent economy has been hit hard: the city has one of the highest unemployment rates (25 per cent) and levels of poverty (22 per cent) in the West Bank. As a result, Christians continue to emigrate from one of the holiest places of Christianity – the Christian proportion of Bethlehem’s population has dropped, in recent decades, from 95 per cent to less than a third. Overall, in 1948, Christians in Palestine accounted for roughly 18 per cent of the Arab population; today they make up less than 2 per cent of the Palestinian population of the occupied territories.

So here is another question to consider: why is it that the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, or countries such as Sudan, has attracted the attention and anger of politicians in the west, yet the Christians of Palestine don’t get a look-in? There are no motions, resolutions or petitions filed on their behalf; no solidarity expressed. Could it be because their persecutors aren’t Arabs or Muslims: it’s the state of Israel?

The Israeli government, conveniently, blames the decline of the Palestinian Christian population on the intolerance of militant Muslim groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The problem for the Israelis is that the Christian exodus pre-dates the existence of Hamas – the creation of Israel in 1948 was marked by the expulsion of as many as 50,000 Christians from their homes – not to mention that Palestinian Christians in their own right have repeatedly refused to endorse their occupiers’ dis­ingenuous narrative. A 2006 poll by the Open Bethlehem campaign group found that 78 per cent of Christian residents of the city singled out “Israeli aggression and occupation” as “the main cause of emigration”, while a mere 3 per cent exclusively blamed the “rise of Islamic movements”.

“Divide and rule” is the name of the (Israeli) game; trying to turn Palestinian Christians against Palestinian Muslims by blaming the latter for the persecution and emigration of the former; even trying to redefine what it means to be a Palestinian Christian. In February, the Knesset passed a law recognising Palestinian Christians in Israel as a minority distinct from Palestinian Muslims. Yariv Levin, the Likud politician who sponsored the law, said it would “connect us to the Christians, and I am careful not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs”.

Yet Arab Christians, and specifically Palestinian Christians, have always been at the forefront of efforts to resist Israeli expansionism: from politicians such as Hanan Ashrawi to diplomats such as Afif Safieh, who served as the PLO’s envoy in London, Washington and Moscow; from the New York-based academic Edward Said to the militant leader George Habash, who founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The current mayor of Bethlehem is Vera Baboun, a Palestinian Christian who has written of “the despair of decades of living under a foreign occupation”. The Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Manuel Hassassian, is Christian, too. “We as Christians are part and parcel of the social fabric of [Palestinian] society,” Hassassian told me, adding: “I want to celebrate Christmas in a free country.”

Palestinian church leaders – Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox – came together in 2009 to declare the occupation a “sin against God” and urge a boycott of Israel. What a contrast with US evangelical leaders who shamefully line up behind right-wing Israeli governments and Jewish settlers as they wait for Armageddon.

Palestinian Christians complicate the simplistic narrative of “Muslims v Jews”; they are an inconvenient reminder that the conflict in the Holy Land has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with freedom and self-determination. Whatever your view of Jesus or Muhammad, if you are a Palestinian resident of the West Bank you are a victim of the longest military occupation in the world.

“There is no difference between Christian and Muslim,” remarks a character in Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter, a novel by the Palestinian Christian writer Emile Habibi. “We are all Palestinian in our predicament.” 

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer and political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser