Christmas, just another front in the Israel-Palestine conflict

December 24, 2012

The Israeli-Palestinian media war, that bloodless contest for the world's sympathies, is re-opening a perennial front: call it the war for Christmas. Official Israeli and Palestinian media offices are releasing Christmas messages endeavoring to champion the biggest holiday in Christianity, which also just happens to be the majority religion in Western countries that are deeply involved in the peace process. But Christians are a minority in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, a status that is sometimes apparent in their treatment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a Christmas video, embedded above, touting Israel's "religious freedom" for its Christian minority and drawing a pointed contrast with Israel's neighbors. "Today, Christian communities around the Middle East are shrinking and many of them are in danger, and this is of course not true in Israel," he says. Netanyahu goes on to invite Christians to visit Israel, ticking off a list of holy sites that also included Bethlehem – which is within a Palestinian-controlled part of the West Bank. 

The Palestinian Liberation Organization released its own Christmas video, this one focusing entirely on Bethlehem, the location of Jesus Christ's birth.

That video, embedded just above, opens by showing Palestinian Christians preparing for the holiday, then cuts to footage of a young Christian boy biking alongside the Israeli security barrier that was erected around the city in 2003. A PLO news release says that the video shows "the current reality of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Hope."

Both videos tell a similar story: we are the friends of Christians, they are not. The Israeli embassy in Ireland drew criticism last week for posting on its Facebook page that Palestinians would "lynch" Jesus and Mary if they lived in today's Bethlehem. (The post was later deleted.) Palestinian activists pointed out that Bethlehem's Palestinian residents had just held a public fireworks show to celebrate Christmas.

Still, the Christian population of Bethlehem, as in other parts of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, has been declining. Israeli sources typically credit this to perceived persecution or a sense of unwelcome from the Muslim majority; Palestinians point to Israeli occupation practices as making life in the West Bank difficult. It seems worth noting that economic incentives for moving away from the West Bank – which is not rich, especially compared to Christian-majority Europe – could play a strong role.

While Christians are certainly better off in Israel than they are in, say, Iraq, the religious minority, though relatively prosperous, is not without its troubles there. Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid points out that some monasteries and churches in Israel have been the target of "price tag" attacks by Jewish extremists, similar to a campaign by militant settlers to exact a "price" for any perceived opposition to the settler project. Netanyahu's government certainly does not condone the "price tag" attacks, which have also targeted some Israeli security forces, but they have expanded the growth of settlements. 

Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments seek to champion their treatment of Christians, but the status of this religious minority seems most influenced by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. They are, in the words of a special "60 Minutes" report on Christianity in the holy land, "squeezed."  

Ari Shavit, one of Israel's most respected columnists, believes Christians have become collateral damage.

Ari Shavit: I think this is a land that has seen in the last century a terrible struggle between political Judaism and political Islam in different variations.

Bob Simon: And the Christians are being squeezed in the middle between the Jews and the Muslims?

Ari Shavit: Absolutely.

Bob Simon: Should Israel be concerned about that?

Ari Shavit: I think we should all be concerned about it. Political Judaism and political Islam are rocky. They are harsh. And the friction, the clash between them is very violent.

There is one point on which both Israeli and Palestinian representatives might agree: The best thing that these Jewish and Muslim leaders could do for the Christian minorities under their administration would be to make peace with one another.

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Max Fisher | December 24, 2012