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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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.