We cry out our cry of hope: Why we cannot overlook Israel's targeting of Palestinian Christians
Many people around the globe have become aware of Palestine and Israel due to the violence in and around Gaza. If one follows the legacy media, one might have been told that the conflict began on 7 October when Hamas, an attacked the 'peaceful' state of Israel.
Few, especially those depending on other sources of information, might have learned that Palestinians under a 16-year Israeli siege had finally broken out of Gaza, or what the Catholic Cardinal of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa has called “an open prison.”
Many of the new followers of the conflict quickly noticed the double standard of the Western governments (and Western media) and have also been appalled by the racism that Israel has towards Palestinians. But this discovery has often missed an important factor.
''The Israeli bombing of Christian facilities, churches, and hospitals has given prominence to the Palestinian Christian existence. Israel shelled a Church building where people were hiding from the Israeli onslaught causing the death of 18 Palestinian Christians.''
Israeli occupation, domination, and discrimination are not limited to a particular religion. While Hamas used the Islamic term in reference to their operation (Al Aqsa flood), the fact is that people of all backgrounds and religions have identified with the Palestinian resistance movement, not because of support for Islam.
Furthermore, members of the international community often appear surprised to learn of the existence of Palestinian Christians and may be unable to fathom the continuous existence of Christians in Palestine and the region ever since the birth of Christ in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.
Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem where Jesus was born, was raised, and was crucified are all Palestinian towns with a clear Arab Christian presence.
The Roman Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrios in Gaza City is the third oldest church in the world. It lies also next to the Anglican-run hospital popularly referred to as the Baptist hospital which was also shelled causing death and destruction.
The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which runs the church, said many of those inside at the time were women and children and accused Israel of targeting churches.
According to reports in The Guardian, the Israeli military said it had damaged “a wall of a church” when it hit a Hamas “command and control centre” nearby but denied intentionally targeting St. Porphyrios. The Israeli military provided a video that appeared to show a powerful missile hitting a building immediately adjacent to the church and said the incident was under review.
"Bethlehem on Christmas Eve was a microcosm of Palestinian unity"— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) December 23, 2022
@jeaninehourani on Christian & Muslim unity among Palestinians, & reminding the world that Jesus was Palestinian https://t.co/zpTiFaldws
Remembering Palestinian Christian villages
But while for many the discovery of Palestinian Christians was new; their oppression is as old as the state of Israel itself. The current attempts by Israel to force the expulsion of Palestinians from the north of Gaza to the Egyptian Sinai (under the excuse of protecting them) have refreshed the Palestinian people’s memory of having become refugees 75 years ago and never being able to return. One of the most telling cases of disenfranchisement and refusal to allow refugees to return happened to citizens of the state of Israel who were Palestinian Christians.
In the winter of 1948 six months after the creation of Israel, and when the Israeli army was dealing with cross-border attacks from Lebanon, it asked two mostly Christian Arab villagers to leave their towns temporarily promising them that they could return a few weeks later when the danger was dealt with.
The Palestinian Christians of Kirit and Biram listened to the new rulers and agreed to temporarily leave their villages only to be denied return ever since, despite being legitimate citizens of the state of Israel. Not only that but when an Israeli high court ruled in favour of their return, the Israeli Airforce shelled the entire villages to prevent any return.
The story of Palestinian Christians from these two villages is detailed in Blood Brothers, a book by a Melkite priest Father Elias Chacour. In 1994 the Washington Post ran a long article on the case, entitled: When two weeks turn into 45 years. Today, those two weeks are more like 75 years and there is no sign of the Palestinian Christian citizens of Israel ever returning.
Anti-Christian racism today
More recently though, and especially since the far-right wing Israeli government took power in October 2022, fundamentalist Israelis have taken it upon themselves to bully Palestinian Christians, damage their churches and cemeteries, and regularly assault and defame religious leaders and holy sites.
Nir Hasson, the Jerusalem reporter for Haaretz, happened to be on the scene when a particularly egregious incident took place on 5 October, just two days before the attacks on Gaza were launched. The incident which he filmed and published, showed a group of Christian pilgrims who were carrying a large wooden cross in the Old City of Jerusalem, being spat at repeatedly by adult Haredi Jewish men and boys. The video went viral, sparking outrage around the world.
The creator of the newly established Religious Freedom Data Center, Yisca Harani, explained that the attacks are not one-off incidents.
Following 7 October, however, no one was spared from Israel's vicious revenge. A Christian-run hospital and church were shelled, with many Palestinians killed and injured. This led Palestinian Church leaders to issue a series of calls for a ceasefire.
An alarm was subsequently raised by the UN, humanitarian agencies, and human rights organisations that all issued multiple statements saying war crimes by Hamas can never justify war crimes by Israel. The law of war stipulates that civilians must be spared; bombing must not take place if it is not against a legitimate military objective.
The Hamas attacks which also included soldiers and civilian being taken hostage, produced one of the vilest Israeli responses from Israeli officials who publicly made genocidal and dehumanising statements. Early in this war an Israeli army spokesman said that their actions against Palestinians in Gaza are based on the “emphasis of damage not accuracy". This came when Israel’s defence minister started on 9 October 9 (and implemented) the war crime of preventing water, electricity food, fuel, and medical supplies from 2.2 million Palestinians trapped in a small part of the occupied Palestinian territories.
The harsh assault on Palestinians described by many, including resigning UN officials, as raising the level of genocide, has happened due to the green-light Israel has been given by US President Joe Biden, to commit its onslaught on the people of Gaza. The attacks have not come out of thin air, they were the consequence of Israel's continuous efforts to dehumanise Palestinians as a way of justifying their attacks.
The use of the term "human animals" by Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant to describe the Palestinians, is a shining example. Israel's army chief, Herzl Halevi, also declared, “They are human animals, and we will treat them accordingly.” This designation is not limited to Hamas and its fighters but covers all the people of Gaza, who are being collectively punished for 7 October.
Jerusalem and the war on Gaza
In addition to the situation in Gaza, Palestinians have also been suffering in Jerusalem the rest of the West Bank and Israel. Workers, students, and even medical personnel have been fired for having videos on their phones that reflect the tragedy in Gaza. As the Israeli army has changed the rules of engagement Jewish settlers are allowed to rampage through Palestinian villages and towns.
While the world was focused on the situation in Gaza, extremist Jewish settlers were busy carrying out violent pogroms in the West Bank. Palestinian farmers living near illegal Jewish settlements woke up to discover that they were denied access to the harvest they had been waiting for all year. Settlers also cut down olive trees and cases of settlers stealing Palestinian oil harvest at gunpoint have been reported but Israeli police have done nothing to follow up on the complaints.
Once again, the bulk of such attacks were focused on the old city of Jerusalem with a clear intent of turning the largely Palestinian Muslim and Christian residents into a Jewish Israeli one.
The latest victim of the settler lust for Palestinian land has been the Armenian Quarter which is adjacent to the Jewish Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. Building on a controversial land deal to which the Armenian patriarch has legally rescinded, Jewish hooligans have been trying to seize land belonging to the Armenian Church for centuries.
The controversial investor who goes by the name of Danny Rubenstein or Danny Rothman says he has a deal to build a fancy hotel on what amounts to one-fourth of the Armenian quarter. In mid-October, while the world was focused on Gaza, he brought bulldozers, a private security firm with dogs and Jewish settlers in a show of force to intimidate the Armenian community and to begin digging up the church property.
One of those attempting to take over the land by bullying protesting Armenians (including Armenian religious leaders), is a criminally indicted Jewish settler, Saadia Hershkop, who is an aid to the racist Israeli minister of the Interior, Itamar Ben Gvir.
For the time being, the communal unity against the land deal, which has been publicly supported by the head of the Churches in Jerusalem, appears to have fended off efforts to take over the Church property.
Attacking Christians unifies Palestinians and Arabs
Palestinians, including Gazans, are not Hamas, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when the two met in Cairo. Certainly, Christian Palestinians have nothing to do with the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas movement. So why are hospitals, churches, mosques, bakeries, and homes being targeted continuously without a whisper from the so-called free world?
Ironically by targeting all Palestinians including the small Christian Palestinian community in Gaza, the Israelis have cemented national unity in Palestine and beyond, including in nearby Jordan. Protests and vigils by Arab Christians in opposition to the Israeli onslaught and in support of the Palestinian resistance has brought out hundreds of Jordanian Christians for the first time.
A Palestinian Catholic mother published an appeal to Biden as a Catholic, to base his policies on his moral beliefs: “We are not children of a lesser God, Mr. President, we are the Palestinian Christians of the holy land where the message of love peace, and justice started, and we call upon you to stop this Genocide.”
Palestinian Christians sent an open letter to Western church leaders and theologians, a “call for repentance” that has garnered thousands of signatures and is being circulated to the world.
The letter vowed that Palestinian Christians will “continue to be steadfast in our hope, resilient in our witness, and continue to be committed to the Gospel of faith, hope, and love, in the face of tyranny and darkness.” It was also stated that the call for a ceasefire “came from the simple fact that we are pro-life. We cannot stand still while people are dying from hunger, thirst, lack of medical access, lack of access to fuel to generate electricity, and victims of indiscriminate shelling causing widespread deaths and injuries as well as destruction of homes, schools, bakeries, and media outlets.”
The Palestinian Christian appeal, which has so far gained over 17,000 signatures, concludes with a quote from the 2009 Kairos Palestine document: “In the absence of all hope, we cry out our cry of hope. We believe in God, good and just. We believe that God’s goodness will finally triumph over the evil of hate and death that persist in our land. We will see here a new land’ and a new human being,’ capable of rising in the spirit to love each one of his or her brothers and sisters.”
Daoud is a Palestinian journalist and media activist. He is the former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Kuttab is currently the Director General of Community Media Network (CMN).
Follow him on Twitter: @daoudkuttab
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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.