Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians went on strike over Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza, violence inside of Israeli cities and efforts to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
In the Bethlehem area, youth have gathered to protest outside of the large checkpoint known as “300” — where only those with an Israeli-issued permit may pass from the West Bank into Jerusalem.
Locals tell me that this month’s protests are far bigger than they were during previous escalations and that among the protesters marching from Bethlehem toward the checkpoint are Palestinian Christians, a group that’s rarely mentioned in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The problem, Palestinian Christians tell me, is that the ongoing violence, which came to a cease-fire early Friday, Israeli time, is often framed as a clash between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims. In reality, the battles and protests aren’t about whether Judaism or Islam has a stronger claim to the land.
Instead, both Christian and Muslim Palestinians are pushing back against the Israeli authorities who they say treat them differently than Jews. They’re reacting to “73 years of injustice,” said Antwan Saca, a Christian Palestinian who lives in Beit Jala — a small town snuggled in the mountains outside of Jerusalem that blends almost seamlessly into Bethlehem, which is just down the hill.
Palestinian Christians like Saca argue that framing events in religious terms — that is, Muslim versus Jew — represents an attempt to carve up Palestinian identity in order to better “divide and conquer” the population.
Although Palestinian Christians are, in some ways, treated differently by the Israeli authorities than their Muslim brethren — for example, Christians who live in the West Bank receive hard-to-get permits to access Jerusalem during Christian holidays — when all is said and done, Israel still treats them as any Palestinian, they say.
“At the end of the day, the Israelis do not see me as a citizen, as an equal peer,” said Saca, who is currently director of the Palestinian programs for Seeds of Peace, and a community activist who has long worked in the area of peace, justice and human rights.
“I was married to a foreigner and at some point her presence (her visa) here was rejected. It didn’t matter that I’m Christian. Facing the system, I’m still a Palestinian,” he said.
While Palestinian Christians make up a tiny segment of the population in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, they have long played an outsized role in the economy, politics and society — including a key role in the Palestinian national movement, even before Israel was established in 1948.
Prior to the establishment of Israel, local Arabic newspapers played a tremendous part in solidifying both a national identity and a consensus around the question of Zionism. One of the most influential publications, Falastin, was founded by Palestinian Christian Issa El-Issa. Khalil al-Sakakini was a Christian and an early and influential Palestinian nationalist. Edward Said, one of the world’s leading academics on the topic of Palestine and one of Zionism’s fiercest critics, was also a Palestinian Christian.
And Christian-majority Beit Sahour was at the heart of nonviolent resistance during the First Intifada, the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, with its 1989 tax revolt — residences’ refusal to pay taxes to the Israeli government.
Today, Christian institutions play a vital role in keeping Palestinian society afloat as it struggles economically under Israeli occupation. Not only do Christian institutions provide much needed jobs, but also many Palestinian hospitals are Christian, including Al Ahli hospital in the Gaza Strip.
Two days ago, the new Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, the Most Rev. Hosam E. Naoum — himself a Palestinian — made a plea for the fuel needed to keep the generators at Al Ahli hospital running. Portions of the Gaza Strip are without power due to the Israeli blockade and bombardment, according to the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, and so without fuel and donations, Al Ahli hospital won’t be able to cope with the “crushing flow of injured and traumatized victims” streaming through its doors, the Rev. Naoum said in a statement.
He also called for “an immediate cease-fire” and for the United Nations and international community to “address the underlying injustices and grievances that have led to this latest unrest in a recurring cycle of violence.”
Other Christian leaders in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories have also expressed their support for all sides. On May 9, as tensions mounted, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem also issued a statement calling for an end to Israeli provocations in Sheikh Jarrah and at Al-Aqsa Mosque, remarking that the actions “violate the sanctity of the people of Jerusalem and of Jerusalem as the City of Peace.”
“The actions undermining the safety of worshipers and the dignity of the Palestinians who are subject to eviction are unacceptable,” the Heads of the Churches of Jerusalem remarked.
They concluded their statement by calling for the intervention of the international community “and all people of good will.”
The Palestinian Christians I spoke with believe the international Christian community has not done enough to respond to these calls. They feel abandoned and wonder why Christians around the world are aligning themselves with Israel.
American Christians, in particular, should be pushing back against their political leaders, who are some of the biggest supporters of the Israeli military, Saca said.
American Christians, he said, are not “carrying the cross as (Jesus) asked (believers) to do … they’re not standing up for justice and they’re not standing up to the oppressors.”
“How are you showing up with Christian values?” he asked. “How are you showing up and standing up for those undermined by power?”
Many American Christians support Israel as the Jewish homeland on the basis of religion. Sometimes referred to as Christian Zionists, they believe that Jews returning en masse to the land precedes the second coming of Christ. Often overlooked, however, is the presence of the Palestinian Christians who have lived there for centuries and the impact that today’s politics have upon their daily lives.
In the absence of international support, Palestinian Christians are standing up for themselves by hitting the streets to protest near the 300 checkpoint. Locals say that the Israeli army isn’t letting the demonstrators get far and is turning them back with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets, sometimes before the first stone has been thrown.
A young Palestinian Christian woman who lives in the neighboring village of Beit Sahour, which is home to Shepherd’s Field, tells me that, on a recent day, the tear gas was so heavy it wafted all the way to her family’s house, about a mile away from the checkpoint. The granddaughter of Palestinian refugees from Jaffa who were forced to flee their homes in 1948, she says the current escalation has left her too frightened to leave her house, let alone travel to Jerusalem — a place sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike.
“This violence that’s happening in the streets — it’s very dangerous,” she said.