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