• May 20, 2002
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    Bethlehem - The day after
Bethlehem - The day after 'What in God's name am I doing here? "Christians don't handle pressure very well," notes frankly Atallah Isawi, an immaculately groomed former Baptist pastor and current teacher at the Bethlehem Bible College. Sitting in his Beit Jala home, he demonstrates his meaning by slowly crunching his fingers and palms together. "That is why we are the first to leave the country when things get bad," he adds.

And indeed, times are bad these days for the Palestinian Christian population, especially in Bethlehem and its sister towns, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur.

When the siege at the Church of the Nativity ended last week, and the IDF pulled its soldiers, tanks and armored personnel carriers from Bethlehem and lifted the curfew on the city, left behind was a fractured, disjointed and disoriented Christian community. Many of its members feel abandoned by Europe and the US, humiliated by Israel, often rejected by their Muslim neighbors, and worst of all, they fear their society is just a few years from de facto extinction.

Despite the initial jubilation that erupted when Israel lifted its curfew after a 39-day grueling standoff between the IDF and gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity (the site where Jesus was said to have been born), reality has come crashing down on this community. Even as Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat makes his emotional and triumphant return to Manger Square on Monday, entrepreneurs sit on rickety stools outside their shops, resting heavy heads on the palms of their hands.

Manger Square is now a snarl of people anxious to complete errands or shop, something they have not done in more than a month; it was the longest-lasting siege Israel has had on any Palestinian city since the start of hostilities.

Now, once-bustling souvenir shops are dusted for the tourists who will not arrive. The zesty odor of felafel wafts in the air. These odors contrasted starkly with the desolation, decomposing piles of rubbish, herds of journalists and groups of soldiers who congregated on Manger Street just a week before. But then, like now, there were few buyers.

Few were much elated by Arafat's arrival to a hero's welcome complete with a pipe-and-drum band and the many kisses planted on his face. Despite his arrival, the frantic clean-up of the Church of the Nativity - which was left smelling strongly of turpentine - and the presence of Palestinian police, poverty and recession remain the painful catchwords on the street.

One of the few thriving businesses were barbershops. One such shop, the Star Saloon, owned by a man known as Abu J'od, was vibrating with the dual sound of an Arabic singer ululating and the steady buzz of an electric razor. "Sure we're making money now," says Abu J'od nodding at the three men reading papers and waiting patiently behind him, "but we have not made a shekel in the past five weeks. We had no food."

For one Christian man, George, making money anytime would be a blessing. The owner of a rotisserie chicken shop, George, who graduated with honors from Bethlehem University a decade ago, laments his fate. "I have a degree in sociology, what in God's name am I doing here?" he says with an abashed smile, pointing at the chickens in the back of his shop pecking at their cages. Though the roasting chickens float a savory odor into the air, no one stops to buy a NIS 20 chicken; such luxuries are simply beyond the budgets of most.

"That is why I am now, for the first time in my life, thinking of leaving my home for the West. How much can a man take?"

He is not the only one thinking along those lines. The Palestinian Christian sector, especially in the Bethlehem area, consists of a fragmented m lange of Arab and non-Arab, Armenian, Greek, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Lutheran, and a half dozen other minor orders in between. But all of them share one common identity: that of a threatened minority.

According to many sources, financial problems are not the only catalyst for the flight of Christians. Tension bubbles up from their relations with their Muslim neighbors, and with their Jewish ones too. Some 60,000 Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza now constitute only about 1.5 percent of the entire Palestinian population.

The tortuously long standoff at the Church of the Nativity has punctured a hole in what little stability the Christian community enjoyed, and will likely increase what is already a steady trickle of emigration into a torrent.

Christian Palestinians have traditionally chosen immigration as a method of self-defense in periods of instability. At the turn of the 20th century, when the Ottoman oppression climaxed and they began conscripting every Palestinian youth into their military, many of the wealthy and well-educated left the country. Then, after enjoying stability and protection during the British Mandate another chunk of Christians left in the wake of the War of Independence, followed by a similar tide of migr s after the Six Day War.

From the eruption of the intifada in October 2000 until November 2001, 2,766 Christian Palestinians emigrated from the West Bank, Israeli authorities report. About 1,640 of them left the Bethlehem area and another 880 left Ramallah. According to these reports only about 30,000 of the Bethlehem area's 130,000 population remains Christian. It was once the overwhelming majority.

And now another flood of emigration looks to be surging, about to break its dikes. In Isawi's Beit Jala home, sitting uncomfortably on the couch opposite him, Pastor Nihad Solomon looks at his former colleague and neighbor in commiseration and notes that many in his flock were simply waiting for the curfew to be lifted to begin packing up their houses. But first they will have to apply, and wait for, visas and immigration approvals.

BECAUSE many Christian Palestinians, unlike the vast majority of Muslim Palestinians, are members of the much envied middle or upper classes, possess fluency in several languages, and have family in Europe, North America, or South America, they have both the facility and the funds to emigrate.

Today, about two-thirds of Beit Jala's 14,000 residents are Christian. Isawi dryly illustrates the impact of immigration with one staggering fact: "In Chile alone, there is a community of 70,000 Christians from Beit Jala."

Another trend working against the Christian community is the massive growth of the Muslim Palestinian population, which according to a recent census is growing at a rate of more than 4 percent per year. At that rate, and with Palestinian women in the West Bank bearing about 5.5 children each (in Gaza the rate is 7.5 children) the Muslim population living West of the Jordan River could double in less than 15 years, according to demography experts.

Meanwhile, the Christian Palestinians are having children more or less along the same rate as Jewish Israelis, about 2.6 children per family - not nearly sufficient to maintain current percentages relative to the Muslims.

According to Prof. Raphael Israeli, a senior lecturer of Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University and an expert on Christian communities in Israel and the territories, the Christian Palestinians will likely find themselves unable to weather this latest storm.

"We are talking about the almost total eradication of the Christian community in the next few decades, probably less," says Israeli. "They will dwindle to insignificance in a decade or two. Only the guardians of holy places will remain there. There the Muslims will not touch them. The Christian remnant will not bother anybody and they will bring tourism, so no one will bother them," he adds.

After Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, it made an effort to create ties with Palestinian Christians. Bethlehem, Beit Sahur and Beit Jala thrived under the Israeli occupation, says Israeli, so much so that at one point in the mid 1970s the mayors of the three towns asked then-mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek that Israel annex them. Under international pressure, says Israeli, the Israeli government refused. This sentiment changed under the Oslo Accords, when the towns wanted to reap the fruits of the accords and joined the PA.

"We don't necessarily want Israelis to treat us differently," says Isawi. "When we thought we had a special place in their hearts, well, that was an illusion - the Israelis favor no one. I see our future, whatever it is, with the Muslims.

"There is an old Arab saying," Isawi notes, "He who takes my mother, will be my stepfather." It is simple, he adds: this means that we will side with the ruling power to survive.

"We will not be another Druse community, or the Bedouin, or the SLA [the Christian South Lebanon Army], none of which Israel treated as equals. We know that is not our fate. Also we have no political agenda except survival. So with the Muslims it is," he says stoically.

And there is also tacit acquiescence: in order not to pique the ire of Muslim militants or the PA, church officials even allowed militants to despoil church sanctity by entering its holy grounds armed. A high-level church cleric admitted to The Jerusalem Post that his fellow monks "are afraid, and prepare for good relations after the siege instead of shouting at the gunmen to stop violating our holy site."

Some monks who covertly managed to slip past the militants in the church, described the situation therein as a takeover where they were confined at gunpoint and threatened. In some cases monks had reportedly been beaten, their Church's heirlooms vandalized or stolen by Palestinian gunmen inside.

Father Gustavo, a Latin Patriarch monk, told the Post that the militants desecrated the sanctity of the church by hauling in dozens of weapons and bombs during their captivity. They also attempted to steal from the church, but not on a large scale. Presented with no other option, the monks tried to handle the situation graciously, says Gustavo, accepting the militants and caring for them according to Christian dictums.

MALTREATMENT of Christians and Christianity is not restricted to the Church of the Nativity. In Beit Jala, the last town in the West Bank with a Christian majority, Tanzim gunmen have all too often opened fire onto a District Coordinating Officer camp on a nearby hilltop from behind the kitchen or the backyard of the building Isawi and Solomon share in a neighborhood populated almost exclusively by Christians.

"I can't tell you how many nights we've had to sleep on the floor of my living room surrounded by extra couches," says Solomon.

The results are both fresh bullet holes and old pockmarks touched up with cement on the buildings' exterior. But the use of Christians' homes as shields from Israeli bullets also breeds resentment on the part of families like the Isawis.

Festering beneath this kind of cross-religious strife is a broad cultural and economic gap. Beneath the sun-soaked Beit Jala hills wallows the al-Ayda refugee camp, and south of Bethlehem sits the Dehaishe camp where few Christians live. The crumbling, makeshift housing of the predominately Muslim Ayda camp starkly contrasts with the sprawling white stone villas looking down at the camp where many of the Christians live. They serve as a constant reminder of the huge gap between rich and poor and the Christian's comfortable position in the middle and upper classes.

Many of the Tanzim in the Bethlehem area belong to the Bedouin Te'ani clan, a semi-nomadic group of tribesmen, connected to the notorious Abayat clan (who control the Bethlehem area Tanzim and al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade), many of whom moonlight as drug traffickers and car thieves. They have been known to bully wealthier businessmen and even disrupt Christian weddings by firing machine gun bursts into the air, says one Christian source who wished to remain anonymous.

But some of Beit Jala's and Beit Sahur's Christian residents - whose houses high in the Judean hills are perfect perches for Palestinian gunmen - have rebelled against this use of their houses as cover for unwanted snipers.

According to a local source, Christians in Beit Sahur have set up their own offshoot Tanzim group. This group works as a front to repel the Muslim gunmen that traipse through their kitchens on their way to firing a couple of rounds at Gilo or an IDF base.

Motivating the Christians to establish this militia, which the source claims only fires rounds into the distance once in a while to prove their activity, are countless incidents in which Muslim militants burst into houses and see Christian girls in miniskirts. "You can imagine the kinds of things they say," says the source.

According to the source, the Christian gunmen would tell the Muslims to move on to different turf, as the one they had just arrived at was "already being used." However, the Christians have been very careful not to make theirs an internal squabble among Palestinians. Involving themselves in a large-scale imbroglio with the Muslim majority could mean death, the source says.

OTHERS, and possibly the majority of the area's Christians, see the standoff at the Church of the Nativity as advantageous for local Muslim-Christian relations.

"We [Christians and Muslims] have lived together since the 14th century," says Father Ra'ed a spokesman for the Latin Patriarch Church. "The problem is not with the Muslims but with the Israelis; the siege of the Church of the Nativity is a black page in the history of Israel." What's more, he adds, "our brothers the Muslims will appreciate our strong stand, we gave their fighters refuge, protected them. The priests inside the church have done a great job in giving the fighters shelter and providing for them."

In Ra'ed's view, Israel created a wealth of valuable Muslim-Christian solidarity when it barred the entire population of Bethlehem, sheikhs and priests, Muslim and Christian lay people alike, from attending religious services.

Bethlehem Mayor Hana Nasser, himself Christian, also strongly supports the stand the Franciscans took in favor of protecting the militants.

"You can't separate Christians and Muslims in these times, especially since one of the Tanzim men inside the Church [was] a Christian," he notes with pride.

Some Christians interviewed by the Post intimated an Israeli conspiracy, which aimed to rid the region of its Christians or at least pit the Muslim Palestinians against their Christian minority. Salim Munayer, who completed his doctorate at the University of Wales on the identity of Christian Palestinians, blandly dismisses such conspiracy theories but adds forebodingly: In the Palestinian areas as "in all the Middle East there is no constitution, and there are no by-laws that protect minority rights, and so we suffer."

Not only are a large number of Greek Orthodox Christians affected directly by the closure of the Church of the Nativity, but the great majority of Christian Palestinians in general were indirectly affected by the days of curfew, and what they consider siege.

It is especially embittering to the Christians that though not one of them appears on Israel's most wanted list, Arafat was out of his compound, ranting and tirelessly wagging his trademark V-for-victory sign, while they sat in their homes under curfew.

How could it be, they asked themselves last week, that the man who Israel accuses of direct links with terrorism is free, but they, who are not involved with terror are still cooped up, prisoners in their own homes?

What did they do to deserve such a punishment? Like many clergy and lay people interviewed, Reverend Mitri Rahab, Pastor of Bethlehem's Christmas Lutheran Church, who had once also founded an interfaith group calling together Jews, Christians and Muslims, now feels that more pressing than Christian-Muslims relations, are the deteriorating Christian-Jewish relations.

"For [how many] days we have been cooped up in our homes like prisoners," said Rahab in his Bethlehem home just meters away from a throng of journalists waiting eagerly outside the church to report on any news of a resolution. "More than 70% of Bethlehem's 130,000 residents are children. That means that 90,000 children are not able to leave their homes. My children have been permitted to leave the house for only about 16 hours in more than 850 hours of curfew; how can this be justice, what did they do? Why the collective punishment? What did I do to deserve this? accuse me of something and I will answer it, but I have never been accused."

Like the others, he said that the resentment against Israel accrued during the five weeks of curfew might not abate in five decades of attempted healing.

In its effort to uproot terrorist networks that lurk throughout the Palestinian Authority, the IDF killed dozens of wanted men, arrested hundreds and wreaked a significant amount of damage to Palestinian Authority infrastructure, roads and private houses. What Rahab, who lives in the rectory of his Lutheran Church, does not understand is why the soldiers who entered the unfinished annex to his church had to cause so much damage.

"There were no militants hiding inside," he says calmly. "There was no resistance, they came in easily and then proceeded to smash open all the doors, shooting and cursing me when I asked them why they were doing it."

As was the IDF modus operandi in Operation Defensive Shield, it removed the hard drives from most of the computers at the International Center of Bethlehem. They shot holes in toilet basins waiting to be installed and broke all but a few of the structures' windows, said Rahab.

Many of Rahab's congregants complained and presented evidence to Rahab and Solomon that Israeli soldiers stole cash or in one case cracked a safe and took the gold jewelry within.

The IDF arrested at least five soldiers suspected of either stealing or looting during Operation Defensive Shield. So pervasive are the accusations of gross misconduct by Israeli soldiers that the IDF set up a special branch comprising both regular and reserve military police investigators. The army spokesman recently called such incidents a "disgrace to those who were in uniform and [something which] causes great damage to the military, whose strength is in its purity."

Yet when asked why Christian Palestinians refrain from acts of terror, despite the growing rage and resentment of a people who apparently suffer the same abuses Muslim Palestinians consider grounds for suicide attacks, Isawi and Solomon at first seem not to have an answer.

Finally Isawi says gently, "as much as Jews value life, we value it more. This is another reason why despite the hardships here, we don't blow ourselves up, we just leave."

IRONICALLY, one of the complicating factors in Israel's relations with Christian Palestinians is perception by their Muslim brethren that the Zionist State holds them in special favor. Such favoritism often fosters the branding of Christians with what has become the most deadly label: collaborators.

On Monday afternoon, the cleanup of the city also included the interrogation and arrest of suspected collaborators. One man, Mahmud A. H., who is close to the Abayat family, says that as many as 25 collaborators have been killed in recent months. He adds that as many collaborators as are working for the Shin Bet, Israel's security service, there are more "counter-collaborators" working to weed them out, a process that most often ends in the death of the suspect.

But while the Christians do not want to be saved by the Jews they do want salvation to come from their Western brethren, which many believe should have applied all possible pressure to resolve the Church of the Nativity standoff much earlier.

For instance, many of the Christians interviewed expressed great anger at Italy for balking at accepting the deportation of militants from the church, thus ending the impasse and facilitating Christians moving on with their lives.

"Even 20 years ago France and Italy defended the Catholics, and the British protected the Protestants, and the Russians the Orthodox, and now they have stopped looking eastward," says Munayer. "Obviously," he adds, "they now look at the Middle East from their own political interest - there is no doubt that the Christians here are swimming against the trend."