Doublethinking Palestine

Moon over Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. (Photo: Sarah Sachs)

The latest violent incursions into the Gaza Strip have brought a new wave of introspection on the raison d’etre of Israel’s occupation and its cynical method of warfare, which exploits humanitarian and infrastructural channels as fiercely as it uses missiles and bombs. But these actions are reminiscent of another perversity that weighs on Palestinians and is perhaps of no less relevance: doublethink.

One example occurred three weeks ago, when U.S. Congressmen Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY) solicited a bill concerning the “persecution” of Palestine’s Christian communities. The initiative attempts to intervene in Palestinian-Israeli politics by presuming that the Palestinian Christian minority in the West Bank and Gaza is “systematically” oppressed by the Muslim majority — and that punitive sanctions should apply. It is founded on the sweeping assumption that because Muslims outnumber Christians in the Palestinian territories, and because the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas party now dominates the Palestinian National Authority, Palestinian Christians are necessarily under threat. The Congressmen conflate tyranny with Islam, and imply that this is the only possible source of injustice in the Middle East.

A mere scratching at the surface reveals that these notions are baseless and mis-educated. They curiously imagine drastic societal divisions that do not exist.

The face-value defects of this proposed bill are numerous. For one, the Congressmen’s aides reportedly admit that the proposal was largely derived from consultations with a senior advisor to Israel’s right wing, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with Israeli academic Justus Weiner, who dedicated a significant portion of his career to the character assassination of Columbia University’s Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian by birth. Moreover, “the systematic destruction” (the Congressmen’s words) of Palestine’s Christian communities at the hands of the Palestinian Authority is a falsehood as it stands. The vast majority of Christian organizations in the Bethlehem District, home to the largest number of Christians in the West Bank or Gaza, have attested to this through public statements.

If Americans and their lawmakers want to concern themselves with destructive or exclusionary measures against Palestine’s religious and cultural sites, they should recall the unsanctioned incursions by Israeli troops into the Russian Orthodox Church House in Bethlehem, which was used as a stronghold to shoot at the Church of the Nativity during its siege by Israeli troops in the fall of 2002.

Israel’s encroachments into the Bethlehem District alone, which include the townships of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, have taken a devastating toll in terms of the lands lost to Israeli confiscation policies. The decades-long occupation has expropriated 46 percent of Beit Jala, 27 percent of Beit Sahour and approximately 9 percent of Bethlehem. These lands include those taken from Palestinian Christians for Jewish-only settlements like Gilo, Har-Gilo, Har Homa, and Givat Hamatos; or for future illegal constructions, such as Giv’at Ya’el in Beit Jala, and Har Homa B and C in Beit Sahour.

There is, in fact, an imminent threat to the existence of Palestinian Christian communities, and it does not stem from Israel’s annexation policies alone. It includes restrictions on movement and the denial of the rights to self-determination, worship (i.e. access to Jerusalem’s holy sites), education, proper health services and an adequate standard of living. And for Gaza’s Christians, who account for 2,200 of the Strip’s 1.4 million residents, the situation is deteriorating at an exponential rate, as Israeli bombardments and closures deny them water, food and electricity.

The above restrictions and violations must also be viewed through the larger lens of Israel’s systematic destruction of Palestinian civil society, a process that is blind to religious identity and grounded in an ethnically-based discrimination against Arabs that is increasingly used to justify further Isreali land grabs.

In a report issued earlier this year, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) found that between 1999 and 2004, Israel’s occupation and oppressive measures led to unprecedented levels of poverty in the West Bank, with 63 percent of Palestinians living below the poverty level of $2.3 per person per day, 16 percent of whom live in extreme poverty conditions ($1.6 per person per day). UNCTAD avers that these figures “have been hard to reverse under the Israeli policy of internal and external closures and the complex system of mobility restrictions” and that this “system has effectively turned the West Bank into isolated islands, involving at the height of the closure regime up to 600 physical barriers in the form of permanent checkpoints, metal gates, earth mounds and walls, roadblocks and trenches.”

Additionally, Israel’s continued construction of its separation wall, whose illegal ruling by the International Court of Justice approaches its second anniversary, along with various other separation barriers on either side of the wall, have created over two dozen communities stranded between the West Bank and Israel’s 1948 borders. Several of these enclave populations have no access to public health care whatsoever.

Indeed, there is little substance to Congressmen McCaul’s and Crowley’s allegations beyond their own imaginations. A more responsible course for U.S. lawmakers begins with an attentive ear to the testimonies of Palestinians of all faiths — something these legislators have scarcely done. In doing so, may they embark in a more truthful direction, in which Muslim does not have to imply oppression, Jew does not necessarily mean victim, and Christian is not somehow divorced from Arab, Druze, Jew, or any other Semitic identity for that matter. Finally, may they not forget Gaza where war, by the wildest and most corrupt imaginings, is equated with freedom.

Zachary Wales is a regular contributor to Electronic Intifada.