At the same time that thousands of Christian Zionist tourists descended on Jerusalem last week to display their unequivocal support for Israel, local Christian leaders say they fear a recent increase in attacks on their holy sites signals the potential for future, more extreme violence.
“Today, they attack holy sites in the night. Tomorrow, they will attack the holy sites while they are filled with people, and then [it] will end [with them] bombarding churches and mosques while people are praying,” Rifat Kassis, coordinator of Kairos Palestine, a Palestinian Christian activist organization, told The Electronic Intifada.
“If we fail to see this from now, and to stop this from now, then the whole international community is complicit with this,” he warned.
A Franciscan monastery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem was vandalized in early October, as derogatory words about Jesus were painted on the entrance gate alongside the words “Price tag” in Hebrew. “Price tag” violence is the term used to describe acts of vandalism usually carried out by Jewish-Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank in response to Israeli government decisions with which they disagree.
When The Electronic Intifada attempted to investigate the incident a few days after the graffiti had been found, the gate had been painted over, and no visitors were allowed inside the monastery as it was undergoing renovations.
The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land expressed its dismay at the incident. “More than anything, the Assembly again asks, that radical changes be made in the educational system, otherwise the same causes will produce the same effects over and over,” it said in a statement (“Franciscan convent on Mount Zion desecrated, ACOHL dismayed,” Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, 2 October).
To date, Israeli police have yet to arrest anyone in connection with the vandalism.
Hostile climate of intolerance
In recent years, Israeli extremists have vandalized Muslim holy sites throughout the West Bank and in so-called “mixed” Jewish-Palestinian cities in Israel.
In October 2011, for instance, a mosque was set on fire in the northern Bedouin town of Tuba Zangariya and the words “Death to Arabs” and “Price Tag” were spray-painted on headstones in a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa.
“The Israeli government is doing nothing in order to stop these racist people, and this fact gives this bunch of racists a green light to do anything they want,” Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Jaffa resident and member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipal council, said at the time. “We are really worried. Now these people are attacking holy places; tomorrow they could also hurt people.”
Despite being condemned by most Israeli politicians, these violent acts have largely gone unpunished. In fact, according to a report by the Alternative Information Center, the Israeli police commander in the West Bank won’t prosecute the individuals responsible for four mosque arsons, despite having DNA evidence to convict them.
“We know, in at least four cases of mosque arson, whom the perpetrators are. We even got a DNA match from a matchbox near one of the mosques set on fire — but it appears this is insufficient for charges,” Major General Amos Yaakov reportedly told Hebrew news website Walla (“Police chief: we have DNA of mosque arsonist, but he won’t be charged,” Alternative News, 9 October).
The recent wave of attacks on Christian holy sites signals something new, however.
Suspected Israeli extremists also burned the door of a monastery in Latrun — halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv — in September, and scrawled the words “Jesus is a monkey” on the wall. The attack was likely carried out in connection to a recent evacuation of an illegal Israeli settlement outpost in the West Bank a few days earlier.
In July, Israeli Knesset (parliament) member Michael Ben-Ari tore up a copy of the New Testament. “This abominable book brought about the murder of millions of Jews in the Inquisition,” Ben-Ari reportedly said, adding, “This book and those who sent it belong in the garbage can of history.”
Years of harassment in Jerusalem
Priests from many Christian denominations have long complained of harassment in Jerusalem’s Old City, including most notably being cursed and spat on by ultra-Orthodox Jews.
“This is one of the phenomena that we as Armenians who live in this part of the Old City have been facing for many years,” explained Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, Director of the ecumenical and foreign relations department of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
“I believe it’s a matter of education. People that are in [the] majority and do not condone such acts, whether vandalism or spitting, they should do their duty by educating their own people to refrain from such activities which are threatening the peace in this land,” Shirvanian said.
Last November, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that a Jerusalem court threw out an indictment against an Armenian priesthood student who punched an ultra-Orthodox man in the face after the latter spat on him in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“Putting the defendant on trial for a single blow at a man who spat at his face, after suffering the degradation of being spat on for years while walking around in his church robes is a fundamental contravention of the principles of justice and decency,” the judge wrote in his ruling (“Ultra-Orthodox spitting attacks on Old City clergymen becoming daily,” Ha’aretz, 4 November 2011).
According to Archbishop Shirvanian, while spitting incidents have declined in recent months, the Israeli authorities need to do more to stem the problem. “We know that when reports are being made, [the police] sometimes arrest people, detain them for a short while and they release them. Once in a while they may restrain the guilty side from entering the Old City for a week, or two, or a month. But that’s not a real punishment.”
Attacks reflect overall Israeli impunity
According to Kairos’ Rifat Kassis, attacks on Christian holy sites are only one part of the daily attacks carried out by right-wing Israelis against Palestinians throughout the area.
“We cannot exclude these attacks from the overall attacks coming mainly from settlers against the Palestinians. This is also a sign of growing fundamentalism and extremism which should worry any democratic person, not only Christians and Muslims; this should be a matter of concern for all of us,” Kassis told The Electronic Intifada.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, settler attacks resulting in physical harm and property damage to Palestinians increased by 32 percent in 2011 compared to 2010 (“Israeli settler violence in the West Bank,” November 2011 [PDF]).
More than 90 percent of complaints filed by Palestinians to the Israeli police in recent years regarding settler violence have been closed without an indictment being filed, the UN agency also found.
“This is impunity. This is also what Israel is enjoying from the international community. This impunity goes for their own citizens and also for its own policies as well as a government,” Kassis said. “I think this is a message [from the Israelis which] says that, ‘This is our country. This is our land. This is our home and everyone here is a guest and we can do whatever we want.’”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at jkdamours.com.