ISRAEL: THE LAND AND PEOPLE : A PALESTINIAN CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

By DR. FR. LABIB KOBTI

Saturday November 15, 1997

At The Middle East Studies Center of Southern California College

Fifly-Five Drive Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Tel 714-668-6142

Introduction:

It is an honor for me to provide a Christian - Arab persepective on the issue of Israel, its Land and People. The western media often reduces the core of the Arab - Israeli conflict to a religious conflict between Judiasm and Islam, omiting the legitimate interests of Arab Christians and indeed world Christianity. Let me say from the start, that I see the conflict in political terms subject to political resolution. That view does not exclude the right of access to holy sites nor freedom of worship by members of the three great religions founded in this Holy Land; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I spent 19 years, as student, teacher and pastor in the Holy Land at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary of Beit-Jala. My perceptions were shaped by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem that I represent in California, as well as my Muslim, Jewish and Christian friends still residing there.

I will devide my talk into three parts:

I- Palestine-Israel: The Land

II- Palestine-Israel: The People

III- Are Christian interests respected by the state of Israel?

I- PALESTINE-ISRAEL: THE LAND

I would like first to explain why I used the expression Palestine-Israel. This is to help you understand the first point: Palestine-Israel: The Land

As all of us know, that the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean has seen many occupations during the last three millenia: The semitic nomads, the Persians,Greeks, Egyptians, Seleucids, Jews, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Christian Crusaders, Turkish Empire, England, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestine NationalAuthority have all controled part or all of the land. This land has been called by many names. The Land of Cannan, the Land of the Jebusites, Palestine and Israel. Although, the land was called Palestine for most of its history the World Zionist movement renamed it Israel, focusing on its exclusively Jewish character. John Worrel, an American archeologist who lived and worked in Jerusalem for the past three years states that for a little more than 1% of the history of the Holy Land a nation called Israel spanned the area between Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That is why I will refer to the land as Palestine-Israel. A compromise between history and today political realities.

In the words of Patriarch Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem: "For two thousand years, the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem were sources of continuous wars, because they were always governed by one political authority corresponding to one religion, Christian, Muslim and today Jewish. If we want to provide (the Holy Land and) Jerusalem permanent stability, so that it will remain no more source of war... We have to respect the five components (Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims) ...No one should be excluded ...All five components, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Moslems, all of them should feel equally at home in [the Holy Land and] Jerusalem. Equally sharing the same rights and duties...". As you see in fact, three thousand years of history has shown us what does not work. The political future of Palestine and Israel must be based on democrasy, comprehensive justice and religious freedom for all peoples of the Land.

II-PALESTINE-ISRAEL: The PEOPLE

The people who inhabit Israel - Palestine descended from the Canaanites-Phoenicians,Amorites, Jebusites, Hittites, and Philistins, and the many ethnic groups who occuppied the region or immigrated to it for religious reasons. These people are Bloodbrothers, as Father Elias Chacour likes to call them. Religion does not change ones ethnicity.

Christianity is the only relgion which was born and developped in the Holy Land, it did not come from out-side to inhabit or the inherit the Land. Arab Christians are the original people of the Land; descendants from different various groups who lived in Palestine. They were there before the Jews who subsequently came from other regions and before the Muslims as well.

Arab Christians then are not a religious ethnic community which survived through centuries. Nor were they converted from Islam by modern Christians. Arab Christians were among the first believers and are the "living stones" professing their faith for over two thousand years. Today and for centuries "Local Christians are Palestinians, as Patriarch Michel Sabbah says. Therefore, their position reflects that of their people as a whole." We do not have any Christian Palestinian Party, "Christians with their Muslims brothers and sisters", the Patriarch continues, " were and are actively involved in the peace process. They were and are presently among the opposition. They were and are present in the political resistance to the occupation of their country, Palestine they were present during the Intifada; present at the reconciliation and they work hard for a global and comprehensive Justice, Peace and Truth".

Too often, the Western press, in particular the United States press, characterizes Palestinians as mindless terrorists beyond rational negotiations. Not too long ago the PLO was represented as terrorists.This sterotype was institutionalized in the foreign policies of both the United States and Israeli governments, until the Oslo accords. Then the characterization changed. The Palestine National Authority (which is the PLO) does not live up to agreements protecting Israeli security interests.The reality is that the PLO represents all the Palestinians from those in the camps and prisons to those in the diaspora; both Christians and Moslems. The reality is that the Palestine National Authority is trying to broaden its base of political support at home, democratically representing many factions, while dealing with an intractible adversary.

The Last week of October 1997, a Jerusalm Post report from Israeli sources accused the P.A of persecuting Christians and insisted that Christians are persecuted by their their Muslims brothers in Palestine. The Head of the Christian Churches responded as follows: " The allegations made by Israeli media and others are totally untrue, aimed at covering the real facts of current oppression and political instability in the area, aiming to provoke hostility and breaches within the Palestinian people...it is ironic for the Israeli media to spread such unbased rumors when all Palestinian citizens, Christians and Muslims alike, are subject to general instability due to the continuing Israeli occupation. The statement continues," we call upon the Israeli media as well all others to be responsible and truthful in what they report." Let us turn our attention now to the third point:

III- ARE CHRISTIAN INTERESTS RESPECTED BY THE STATE OF ISRAEL?

Although the Israeli government provides seperate courts for Muslims and Christians, adminstrative treatment of Moslem and Christian Palestineans is equal; BOTH ARE TREATED UNJUSTLY. Muslim and Christian alike are mistreated by Israel on social, economic, educational and religious levels. Actions taken against Palestinians reveal Israeli government motives more clearly than media reports. To describe the mistreatment of Moslem Palestinians is to describe the mistreatment of Christian Palestinians.

Four days ago (on 11.10.1997) the Vatican and Israel signed an agreement. The new agreement covers the churches, religious houses, hospitals, and social and educational agencies of the Catholic Church in Israel. Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, in a telephone interview broadcast by Vatican Radio, reported that the new pact has not significantly changed the "difficult" situation for Christians in the Holy Land. He argued that Israeli security measures have transformed the Palestinian lands into a territory under "Israeli military occupation."

Some Facts on the Ground:

1- Had you read Fr. Chacour's books, Blood Brothers or We Belong to the land you would have read about the two Christian Villages Ikrit and Birim near the northern borders of Israel. These two villages were destroyed by the Israelis for no other reason than to clear the land of its inhabitants. Both Palestinian Muslims and Christians are asking the Israelis to respect their fundamental rights. In Israel (Palestine 1947), Muslims and Christians feel that although they do have the same Israeli ID, they are considered as second class citizens.

2- A 1990 study conducted by Dr. Bernard Sabella, Assistant Professor of Social Studies at the University of Bethlehem, shows that 714,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in 1948, other sources speak of 750,000 including 50,000 Christians. "These Christian refugees were 7 per cent of the total refugees and 35 per cent of the total number of Christians who lived in Palestine prior to May 15, 1948." Dr. Sabella writes "Initially, the majority of the refugees lived in the Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps that were built to absorb them. As for the Christian refugees, they lived in the cities, particularly Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah".

The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics reported in 1994 that the 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and Gaza represented 2.2 percent of the total population estimated at 2,238,000. Arab Christians in Israel were estimated in the same year, in the StatisticalYearbook of Jerusalem at 125,000 or 14 percent of all Arabs in Israel. Christians in Palestine and Israel make up 175,000 or 2.3 per cent of the entire Arab and Jewish population of the Holy Land. Estimates for world wide Palestinian Christians is close to 400,000 or roughly 6.5 per cent of all Palestinians...35 % of all Christians in 1948 were forced to leave Israel.

I can tell my experience as a parish priest in California, sent by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem to serve the Arab-American Roman Catholic emmigrants, the majority of the people that I serve in San Francisco are from Ramallah, Ber-Zeit, Bethlehem, Jifneh,and Jerusalem. Studies of Christian immigration show that the on-going political and economic instability caused this emigration.

3- In an article published in 1993 Wadie Abu-Nassar, teaching-assistant in the Political Science Department at Tel-Aviv University, Executive director of the Catholic Preparation for the Great Jubilee, Jerusalem 2000, and one of the main Catholic activists in Israel wrote, "Despite the Israeli attempts to cover up, it is possible to see many examples of discrimination against Arabs." The discrimination is codified into Israeli law by appending military service as a requirement for government regulated benefits. Palestinians are not conscripted into the Israeli military. Therefore, they are automatically disqualified from many government, educational and employment opportunities.

Dormitories at Israeli Universities are filled on the basis of quotas. 50% of the 1050 beds at Tel-Aviv University's dorms are assigned to students who have completed military service. The remaining 50% of dormitary space is given to "overseas" students rather than Palestinians. This policy reduces the number of Arab students in the university since public transportation from surrounding Arab villages is limited.

4- When jailing people, Israel looks at them as Palestinians and does not distinguish between Muslims and Christians. The Israeli government has jailed more than 10,000 Palestinians, many of whom were never tried in a court of law. And yet, the United States government calls Israel the only democracy in the Middle East.

5- When conficating Palestinian lands, demolishing houses and confiscating identity cards from the Palestinians living in Jerusalem, Israel does not distinguish between Christians and Muslims.

6- After the war of 1967, Israel conficated the licenses of the Christian guides to the Holy Places and created administrative barriers for any Arab (Christian or Muslims) who wanted a tour guide license. Israeli guides and tourist agents, however were readily given licenses.

7- Christian and Muslim Palestinians from the Occupied Territories do not have access to Jerusalem for worship. More than 90 per cent of Palestinian Youth were prevented from visiting Jerusalem for more than 4 years even though Jerusalem is only a few miles from their cities and villages. This fundamental human right of workship is withheld on the grounds of Israeli national security. Both Palestinian Muslims and Christians are asking the Israelis to respect their fundamental right to worship.

8- To those of you who have been to the Holy Land or know Palestinians, it is no secret that Israel discriminates against the Christian Palestinians. What is of greater significance and unfortunately kept secret by the United States press is the discrimination against the religious interests of World Christianity.

a- Israel stopped Christian religious programs on Radio Israel in September 1996. All rebroadcasts of Roman Catholic Religious Services (Latin ) were prohibited. And yet the western media describes Israel as a country that gives religious freedom to all. What do you think world oppinion would be if Italy restricted the broadcast of the Pope's midnight mass from St. Peter's Cathedral? In fact a proposed Israeli law would make possession of the New Testament a criminal offence punishable by a year in jail.

b- Christians from all over the world, including the USA were prohibited by the Israeli government from visiting the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem for 50 days. This punishment for bombings by radical Palestinians was financial punishment directed at the Christian Palestinians of Bethlehem. However, it was more than that. It was a restriction of religious freedom for all Christians.

c- Symbols of Chistianity and Islam are ridiculed in the Israeli press. After depicting the Moslem Prophet and a prominent Christian Saint as farm animals, the Maariv newspaper published a picture of the Cross on its entertainment page of October 10th, 1997 deprecating a significant symbol of the Christian faith.

9- St. Yves, a Human Rights Center in Jerusalem published a study about the systematic policy of reducing the number or Christians in Palestine. Both Israeli law and administrative procedures are used to create difficulties for Christian Institutions and Schools in Jerusalem, and the Occupied Territories. The number of Christians in the Holy Land and in particular in Jerusalem has fallen dramatically since the 1967 occupation by Israel. Today they number 10,000.

10- Christians and Muslims are prohibited from building, adding onto their property or repairing their buildings. This happened in Jaffa, Haifa, Akko, Nazareth after 1948. The same happened after 1967 to Palestinians in Jerusalem and other cities or villages in the West Bank.

11- The amount of land controled by Christians or Christian institutions in Jerusalem has also fallen since Israeli took control. Recently, the press carried a report of a wealthy American physician who is undertaking an agressive campaign to establish Jewish control in Hebron and Arab Jerusalem. He is financing the purchase of land and settlements by radical Jewish immigrants. When Palesinians protested the Israeli governments response was to send military troops securing the areas for the Jews.

Thus, I see the situation in Palestine-Israel not as a religious issue but a political one. The people of the land are Israelis and Palestinians who are Jewish, Christian, or Moslem. Palestinian politics spans the spectrum from radical to liberal. Arab Christians are no less supportive of the Palestine National Authority than their Moslem brothers and sisters. Israel has a legacy of discrimination againsts all Palestinians, both Christian and Moslem. Restrictions on Palestinian religious freedoms now extend to world Christianity. Freedom to broadcast religious servicesor access holy sites are already enforced. Future laws can be expected to narrow the rights of Israeli citizens and non-Jews due to the pressures of the Jewish religious orthodox party. The Israeli government promotes and defends efforts to minimize Christian interests in the Holy Land and Jerusalem, in particular.

IV- CONCLUSION

In conclusion I would like to say that I am not anti-Israeli, nor am I anti-Semitic. I am pro-justice, pro-truth, and pro-peace. On September 29th 1996 a statement by the various religious leaders in Jerusalem was published saying " We believe that God is the God of Justice and righteousness. God does not accept oppresssion but calls on all of us as members of the one human family, Arabs and Jews, to make justice and to love righteouseness....We call on all authorities to work for the establishment of Justice, so that stability might be realized."

I would add also my own request and hope that you take actions securing the interests of world Christianity in the Middle East. Time is of the essence. Support your fellow Christians, "the living stones", in their efforts to remain on the land. Demand basic human rights of religious freedoms; not only for the Palestinians but for yourselves. World Christianity has a right to access the holy sites and pray there without interference.

Defending the Arab Christians is a Muslim and Jewish responsibility as well the responsibility of every Christian.

The Boodbrothers were brought together by God, Allah, Adonai, not to fight but to respect each other; to build a just society and to promote peace.

Thank you for your attention and for giving me this opportunity to speak.

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