The Plight of Palestinian Christians

The following link is lengthy (pardon the pun) but well worth watching. It is an excellent update on the above topic.

https://www.vomcanada.com/index.php?option=com_youtubegallery&view=youtubegallery&listid=26&themeid=4&videoid=145294782&tmpl=component&TB_iframe=true&height=550&width=630

Below, I have used the text from the conclusion of a slightly dated but nevertheless still very relevant book by Justus Reid Weiner, ‘Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society’ (full reference listed at the end of this article).  Throughout this article, I have  included latest updates of some of the events and issues raised in Weiner’s summary.

“The plight of the Palestinian Christian Community cannot remain the sacrificial pawn in the larger game of the Middle East peace process.”

A Backward Glance

In April 2002, the Church of the Nativity was invaded by more than 100 Palestinian Muslim gunmen who shot their way inside, while attempting to evade capture by Israeli soldiers who had entered Bethlehem (West Bank – my comment) to quell on-going terrorism and, in particular, suicide bombings. As confirmed by Abdullah Abu-Hadid, a senior commander in the Tanzim militia, “the idea was to enter the Church in order to create international pressure on Israel” (Raab 2003). Reporting on the event, a Jerusalem-based cleric told the Jerusalem Post that, “propaganda is all that is being heard, in part because of the many cover-ups by the Christians who don’t dare speak up. They are cowards” (Gelfond 2002:260). The cleric explained that fear of Muslim terrorists silences both the churches and the communities. A Bethlehem priest quoted in the same article confirmed the assessment of the Jerusalem cleric, noting with anger, “I would have preferred silence rather than saying that everything is okay. We are worse than cowards, we are lying.” (Gefond 2002:260)

Even if peace negotiations are resumed and successfully navigate the numerous obstacles ahead, the fate of the average Palestinian will depend on the strength and orientation of his state’s institutions. The PA (Palestinian Authority) interim governing authority has proven itself incapable of guaranteeing the protection of the basic rights of Palestinian Christians, the most significant minority under its jurisdiction. One independent report stated that “the risk is that if present structures and practices go unreformed, they will shape and even predetermine future ones in negative ways.” The importance of monitoring the PA’s record, even during the ongoing violent intifada, cannot be overstated.

Some More Recent Developments

The recalcitrance of the PA to enforce international human rights standards, along with its refusal to respect the requirements of the Oslo interim agreements has made it an accomplice and even perpetrator of gross human rights abuses. Though the international community is tempted to donate further sums to the PA following the death of Yasser Arafat (in 2005 – my comment), they appear to be under the as yet unproven assumption that the ascendency of Mahmoud Abbas will rejuvenate the peace process and reinstate respect for human rights and religious freedom under the Palestinian Authority (my insert: elected interim prime minister in 2012 by Hamas and Fatah). This attempt at showing a united front has just been strengthened, as reported in an article by Aljazeera, dated 18.1.2017: “The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has agreed to form a unity government with rival organisation Hamas, Al Jazeera has learned. The agreement was reached late on Tuesday after a three-day negotiation in the Russian capital, Moscow [‘due to America’s seeming pro-Israel new Trump administration’ – as mentioned in same article, my comment]. The two organisations will form a new National Council, which will include Palestinians in exile and hold elections. “Today the conditions for [such an initiative] are better than ever,” Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official, said. The deal also includes the Islamic Jihad group, which had not been involved in negotiations for a long time.”).

In the opinion of this author, the U.S., Israel, and other members of the international community should make human rights a major issue in any future peace negotiations. By using financial incentives during this pre-state stage, the U.S., Israel and international donor communities can prevent the egregious violations of human rights partially described in this monography from accompanying the PA into the emerging Palestinian state. The leverage of the donors is significant, with over 70 percent of the PA’s budget derived from foreign sources. (Sabella 2004).

(My insert: “…in budget years 2015 and 2016, …the US Agency for International Development …sent the Palestinians $355 million…” source: http://www.businessinsider.com, dated January 2017.

Quoting from Wikipedia: “The entities that provide aid to the Palestinians are categorized into seven groups: the Arab nations, the European Union, the United States, Japan, international institutions (including agencies of the UN system), European countries, and other nations (possibly Russia? – my comment).”

[My conclusion from research into this topic: NGO’s, involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, who have greatly increased in numbers, are said to act to protect human rights in this region of conflict, as well as exerting considerable influence over such huge organisations as the UN and the EU, have been shown to have overt or more often covert political bias against one or the other party involved; more often against Israel. Nevertheless, finding unbiased facts is extremely difficult, as even a widely respected “NGO monitor” is funded and staffed largely by the Jewish community! Bias seems to be ingrained in the human psyche! End of my comment]

Financial incentives can be earmarked to train PA security personnel in human rights practices, to construct modern penal institutions, and to reform the legal system.

Clearly, the U.S. has considerable economic leverage in the region, and could use that influence to demand human rights improvements. However, the [past – my comment] President may be reluctant to impose serious sanctions against the Palestinian entity or even push human rights as an issue in the peace talks. The primary objective of the U.S. in the region is peace and the secondary objective is the fight against terrorism. To rebuke the PA or to make human rights an issue in the negotiations would cause the U.S. to lose influence with the PA [my comment: which seems to have happened under Trump, as identified previously by Aljazeera] when dealing with other, ‘more important’ issues.

However, in the opinion of this author, the PA’s adoption of sound human rights policies and practices would contribute immeasurably to the success of the peace process. Although Arafat’s commitment to these values in the agreements was vague at best, the Palestinians’ expectations regarding an improvement in their lives deserves to be met, and should not be limited to issues of pride or economics. As the international community furnishes financial resources to the emerging Palestinian state, it should reflect on its complicity in the human rights abuses that have emerged.

If the internal reforms fail and pressure from the U.S., Israel, and the donor communities does not materialize, there is one last resort for the Palestinian Christians. Since the PA is not a sovereign state even it has administrative responsibilities in designated areas of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli military rule is still in effect in the territories. This means that, legally speaking, human rights are the responsibility of the PA on a day-to-day basis, but the ultimate legal responsibility rests with Israel (Weiner 1995). Of course, the current Israeli government …frustrated by endemic Palestinian terrorism, would appear ill disposed to shouldering this responsibility, given its policy of unilateral disengagement.

(Insert: …in the enclave [Gaza strip], where some two million Palestinians live… Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars since 2008.
The UN development agency has said the enclave, run by Islamist movement Hamas, could become uninhabitable by 2020, while others have warned of frustration spilling over and leading to fresh violence.

Israel strictly controls traffic into and out of Gaza, while the enclave’s border with Egypt has also remained largely closed in recent years.
UN officials have called for the blockade to be lifted, but Israel says it is necessary to keep Hamas from obtaining weapons or materials to make them.

Mike Smith (Tel Aviv), Middelburg Observer, 30 March 2017)

Therefore, the Israeli Supreme Court is the last resort for Palestinians living under the jurisdiction of the PA. The Supreme Court, long a liberal voice, has in recent years become increasingly committed to improving human rights and the rule of law, frequently demonstrating its commitment to ensuring human rights in the West Bank and Gaza. Of course, the Palestinian Christians living in the PA would be reluctant to utilize Israeli legal institutions, but, as victims, they clearly have a need for an institution of last resort, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands of Christians who have left the territories.

It seems logical that, instead of turning to Israeli courts, the Palestinian Christians should be able to turn to the PA’s justice system. This however, would be largely unproductive at the present time. The PA’s justice system has no practical autonomy from the executive branch, even though it is independent in theory. The PA President and Justice Minister can hire, fire, retire, and otherwise control all judicial employees, including judges at all levels. Two previous chief justices were ‘retired’ by the executive branch, one possibly for un unsympathetic comment made against the PA in an interview, and the second for a decision that called for the release of ten Birzeit University students who were being detained unlawfully. (Amnesty 1999:7)

The future of the Palestinian Christian community and any other religious minority living under the PA will rest on the potential for religious tolerance and the rejection of fundamentalist and archaic attitudes towards non-Muslims. As long as the Constitution of the PA reflects the principles of Sharia law, it seems as though the emergence of religious tolerance will remain highly unlikely. Additionally, the PA must crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad and eliminate their influence and role as the enforcers of the more brutal aspects of Sharia law [my comment: which appears even more unlikely than when this report was written, as they have now formed a threesome alliance; Fatah/Hamas/Islamic Jihad, see previous insert published by Aljazeera].

The testimonies (more found in the actual book – my comment) provided in this monograph make it pointedly clear that lawlessness and anarchy have swept the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years. Gangs of thugs and thieves have created what a former Palestinian cabinet minister described as “total chaos”. It is essential that the PA arrest these militants who, in their range of mafia-like conduct, frequently abuse and intimidate Christians. (Toameh 2002c)

The political conflict, or halting efforts to resolve it, can no longer be used by the international community as an excuse for evading responsibility for the gross human rights abuses the Palestinian Christian community has come to accept. Human rights standards cannot any longer be subordinated to political motives. Only when the international community is prepared to stand behind the lofty ideals enumerated in its formative instruments, with its full economic and political resources, will the perpetrators of such abuses be forced to relinquish habits of abuse and ascribe to the norms expected of all sovereign entities.”

Main body of this extract taken from ‘Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society’, written by Justus, Reid Weiner, 2005: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

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