Israeli settlements squeezing out Christians and Muslims


THE ROUTE from Jerusalem to Bethlehem takes us through Israel’s Har Homa settlement, constructed during the 1990s on formerly forested hills incorporated into Greater Jerusalem.

More than 4,000 Israeli families dwell in stone-faced multistoried apartment blocks in this urban colony. Buildings stand wall-to-wall in solid fortress ranks. Buildings are rising at the heart of Har Homa and on its flanks, invading the Bethlehem district, populated by descendants of the world’s first Christians.

In contrast to free Israelis, they live in compartments in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah, tight enclaves created by Israel’s policy of closing off the holy city to West Bankers, the West Bank wall, and Jewish settlements.

Like Muslims, Christians in Bethlehem and Ramallah are relegated to the West Bank and require Israeli permits to enter Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967.

Privileged Palestinian Jerusalemites of both faiths can travel in the West Bank and Israel. George Rishmawi of the Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement says: “Israel is interested in dealing carefully with Palestinian Christians although we don’t know what the Israelis have in mind for us.

“Christians are part of the Palestinian social fabric . . . and of Islamic culture. Palestinians do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians – who are less than 2 per cent of the population,” says Mr Rishmawi.

But Israel makes a key distinction designed to cause animosities.

“It grants West Bank Christians permits to travel to Jerusalem for Christian holidays . . . It is not the same for Muslims. For them it is difficult to get permits. This makes Muslims angry at Christians,” Mr Rishmawi adds.

Otherwise Israel accords equal treatment to the communities. It refuses Jerusalem residence permits to West Bankers marrying Jerusalemites.

Jerusalemite spouses must either live in the West Bank, losing their Jerusalem identity cards, or emigrate. In some cases Christian husbands have been able to secure Jerusalem residence permits for West Bank wives but the city’s Christian wives are, apparently, not able to import West Bank husbands. This policy shrinks the pool of marriageable Palestinian Jerusalemites, particularly for Christians.

Israeli checkpoints between Bethlehem and Ramallah play no favourites. Palestinians used to be able to travel via Jerusalem from Bethlehem to Ramallah in 20 minutes. Now the journey can take anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on traffic at checkpoints and the mood of the Israeli soldiers on duty.

“Israel makes no distinction between Christians and Muslims about land grabs. Most of Jebel Abu Ghneim [confiscated for the massive settlement of Har Homa] is Christian land. When we tried to build a housing project to block Har Homa, we were forced to submit many plans. The Israelis delayed and delayed. We received no answer, yes or no. We did not build . . . Only 13 per cent of land in the Bethlehem district is available for Palestinian development,” says Mr Rishmawi.

Israel has even issued a demolition order for the community centre located at the field in Beit Sahour where, tradition has it, shepherds watching their flocks by night 2000 years ago received news of Christ’s birth.

Israeli settlements and infrastructure are changing Palestinian demographics in formerly Christian towns. “Bethlehem is 50 per cent Christian, [neighbouring] Beit Sahour is 80 per cent Christian and Beit Jala is 60-70 per cent Christian,” says Mr Rishmawi.

These three towns have had an influx of Muslims displaced from Bethlehem district villages and of refugees dating to Israel’s establishment in 1948. Ramallah, once a Christian town, now has an overwhelming Muslim majority.

“The Christian presence is important in Palestine. Christians were deeply involved in the first intifada. Beit Sahour’s boycott of [Israeli] taxes launched non-violent resistance. Now many West Bank Muslim villages are engaging in non-violent protest,” says Mr Rishmawi. “It would be a lot easier for Israel if it can get rid of the Christian community. It could portray its fight [with Palestinians] as being against Islam.”

Bethlehem University cytogeniticist Mazen Qumsiyeh says: “The migration rate for Christians is higher than for Muslims. Christians have more education and better contactsabroad . . . Israel is also changing the environment with its settlements and roads. If it continues . . . [the area] will not be liveable for anyone.”