“Israeli policy has caused an exodus of Christians from the West Bank.” top
Palestinian Christians often suffer because they are stuck in the middle of the conflict created by Palestinian Muslims’ unwillingness to live in peace with a Jewish state. While the Christian Arab population in Israel has grown and prospered, the Palestinian Christian population is discriminated against by Palestinian leaders, particularly Hamas in Gaza, for reasons unrelated to the political dispute with Israel. Specious media reports, including Bob Simon’s “60 Minutes” report, have ignored this reality and instead accused Israel of harming the Christian communityand provoking a mass exodus from the West Bank over the past four decades.
In a 2009 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) wrote that Christians are a “dwindling community” in the disputed territories because they have been “disproportionately affected by … [Israeli] occupation.”159 Bob Simon’s “60 Minutes” report echoed these allegations, noting “a real possibility” that the area will become a Christian “spiritual theme park, a great place for tourists but not for Arab Christians” because of “burgeoning Israeli settlements” and “the wall that completely surrounds” the area.160
The facts, however, indicate a different story. The “wall” Simon refers to is the 470 mile security barrier Israel erected to protect its citizens – Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims – from Palestinian terrorist infiltrations. Only about 5 percent of the barrier is a concrete wall, the rest is a chain-link fence. The fence does create hardships for Palestinians in some places, however, these inconveniences pale in comparison to the loss of life resulting from terrorist attacks prior to the fence’s completion. The Israeli courts and government have also taken steps to minimize the problems the fence causes. If the Palestinians put a permanent stop to terror and sign a peace agreement with Israel, the fence will cease to be an issue.
Additionally, the notion that settlements somehow drive Christians out of the territories is typical of the American misperception that for every Jew who moves to the West Bank, Palestinians must pick up and leave. If Simon had traveled through the area or simply looked at a map, he could have easily seen that the Jewish settlements do not encroach on the places where Palestinian Christians live. The largest Christian neighborhoods in the West Bank – in and around Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Jenin –do not have any Jews living in them or settlements interfering with the lives of Christians.161
While some Christians have indeed fled the Palestinian-controlled territories to avoid the conflict and Muslim persecution, the overall number of Christians in these areas has actually steadily increased since 1967. Today, the Christian population of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, stands at approximately 52,000 – its highest total since 1945.162 The Christian proportionof the population in the territories, however, has significantly declined – from around 15% to 2% – primarily due to the exponential growth in the Muslim population of the region.163
It is particularly hypocritical for Simon and otheres to feign concern for Christians in Israel and the territories while consistently ignoring the plight of Christians in Arab countries, where they have long faced persecution. It is especially galling now that Christian communities across the Middle East are facing uncertainty and insecurity in the face of Muslim extremism in Egypt,Lebanon, and Syria.
Condemning Israel for the plight of the Palestinian Christians misses the true root of their predicament – official mistreatment by the Palestinian government. The Palestinian Authority relegates Christians to second-class status and has been openly hostile to its Christian minority.164 The PA threatens Christians who wish to purchase land from Muslims, refuses economic assistance to Christian-owned businesses, and, in 2010, shut down Al-Mahed “Nativity” TV, the only Christian broadcast in the territories.165 Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat even tried to erase Christian heritage by depicting Jesus as “the first radical Palestinian armed guerrilla.”166
The PA has also routinely ignored terrorists who ransack and defile Christian holy places. In 2008, a bomb was detonated in the Christian Zahwa Rosary School in Gaza City and, in 2006, terrorists firebombed no fewer than five West Bank churches in response to a purported slight in a speech by Pope Benedict XVI. In 2002, nearly 200 armed Palestinian gunmen barricaded themselves insides Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield and took the priests and nuns inside hostage, a situation the Holy See condemned as a violation of religious tradition, the laws of war, and of the bilateral agreement with the PA to protect Manger Square.167
In stark contrast, Christians in Israel are given official protection under the law. The Christian population of Israel has grown from fewer than 35,000 in 1948 to more than 150,000 today. Israeli Arab Christians today are, on average, more affluent and better-educated than Israeli Jews. As Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren noted, Israeli Christians are prominent in all aspects of Israeli life – serving in the Knesset and the Foreign Ministry, sitting on the Supreme Court, and even serving in the Israel Defense Forces even though they are officially exempt from military service.168
Israel welcomes millions of Christians every year – in 2011, a record 3.5 million Christians tourists visited the Holy Land.169 Additionally, Israel helps protect Christian holy sites and has upheld the “Status Quo Arrangement for Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem” which gives the Christian community full custody over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Garden of Gethsemane, the fourteen Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, and other religious sites.170
Christians see Israel as the one country that offers them protection against the rising sea of radical Islam in the Middle East.171 While the media and anti-Israel Christian groups focus on alleged deprivations of the Christians who are prospering in Israel, they continue to ignore the serious threats to their future posed by Islamists in the region.