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THE FORGOTTEN PALESTINIANS

Peace in the Middle East. At long last, it seems that Israelis will be getting a respite from continual warfare with their neighbors, and Palestinians will have their homeland.

But there are Palestinians whom the world has forgotten. They are the ones who are asked the questions, "You're from Israel and you're not Jewish? You're Palestinian and you're not Muslim?"They are Christian Palestinians, Samaritans and Druze - members of religious minorities caught up in the battle between two religious monoliths. Are their rights being overlooked in the continuing rounds of negotiations?

Issam Diek speaks Arabic, Italian, French, English and Hebrew. He calls himself "a media man" from the Holy Land and has the credentials to prove it. He is a newspaper reporter, photographer and video producer. He worked for Al-Fajr Arabic daily newspaper in Jerusalem, was a "stringer" (writer/photographer correspondent) for The Associated Press and Television Francaise 1.

Born in Bethlehem, Diek lived for 10 years in Saudi Arabia where his father was a government engineer. He read the Koran in one country and the New Testament in the other.

He says that the reality of life in Bethlehem is that Christian Arabs practice their religion depending on the whims of politics. From 1988 through 1992 during the Intifada, the PLO and Muslim fundamentalists forbade all celebrations. Diek said that the fundamentalists and PLO parties considered any Christian observance a celebration, so the Christians could not even go to Manger Square in Bethlehem to greet the Catholic patriarch. "If I wear a tie to go see my grandfather on Christmas, I can be hassled," Diek said. "If I celebrate Christmas with wine, trees and lights, if I put up a tree, I will have to deal with a physical protest."

On Palm Sunday 1994, after the pilgrimage down the streets of Jerusalem commemorating Christ's triumphal entry into the city, members of Diek's Catholic congregation were attacked by Muslim fundamentalists on their way back to Bethlehem. His cousin's jaw was broken, and a priest was stabbed in the hand.

Since the PLO treaty with Israel, Christians are allowed to celebrate Christmas. But Diek says the PLO and fundamentalists have no respect for Christian beliefs. "At Bethlehem University there were three Muslims with a Santa Claus acting like idiots. They put up a Christmas tree with their martyrs pictures on it. I wanted to tell them, `You are playing with my life! You are taking my religion!' " Diek said.

Christian Palestinians like Diek are caught between two warring cultures.

Diek says he is considered an enemy to Israelis in the West Bank. "I'm a suspicious Palestinian to the Israeli army," he said. And of his relationship with his Islamic Arab neighbors, "Outdoors - they're our friends; in our house we cry for what they do to us."

Diek remembers the kindness of Israeli soldiers toward his grandmother. "My grandmom told me how the soldiers gave her medicine in 1967. In the 1948 and 1967 wars they didn't take any houses with families in them. They told the people, `Stay in your houses, don't fight, we give you peace,' " he said. Diek said that the Arab forces told the people on the radio to flee their houses to Arab territories for a "few days" while they fought the Israelis. Those who didn't leave weren't harmed by the Israeli army and still live in their homes.

But Diek's feelings could never be shown. "There is a fear of saying positive things about Israel because you'll be considered a traitor. In Israel when I hear about `collaborator' it's like I smell something dirty. The word `collaborator' is a big monster running after everybody," he said.

One of Diek's most poignant photos is of a Christian Arab, Abu-Qubo, who raised pigs on a small farm in Beit Jalah (on the outskirts of Bethlehem.) The man roused the ire of Islamic fundamentalists who poisoned his herd because pork is forbidden to Muslims. The pigs had been sold to Arab Christians who have no prohibition against eating pork and to secular Israelis. The story of Abu-Qubo was printed in the French media.

As a journalist, Diek was continually walking a tightrope in his reporting. When Diek and a colleague, Jim Rone, covered a fundamentalist demonstration for the AP, they attended a funeral in a small town south of Gaza City. Two fundamentalists (Diek said they were probably Islamic Jihad) asked for a ride back to Gaza City. Rone, who was born in America but now lives in Israel, was introduced as an American journalist. (An Israeli journalist would be risking his life in the Gaza Strip.)

At an Israeli military checkpoint the officers became suspicious of two locals with a journalist from the West Bank and a foreigner with an American passport. So Rone had to start speaking in fluent Hebrew and showed them his Israeli citizen ID. They were allowed to pass without further problems. Diek said, "By having the Israeli recommendation, we could pass the checkpoint. But now we had the fear of the two guys in the backseat who will accuse me of being a Palestinian collaborator with an Israeli spy!" Diek said no one said a word for the rest of the trip to Gaza City.

Diek finally knew he would have to leave Israel after he took a camera crew to Manger Square to do a story about Palestinian Christians and the difficulties they were having. He and his crew went to Christian homes and stores, but no one would say anything. "We can be killed," they said. Diek's crew said, "You're a Palestinian Christian, you say it." But, Diek said, "I was afraid to. That's why I left the country because I need to say it. I left Israel for freedom of speech. If I don't take advantage of that freedom, why did I leave?"