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The cross, the crescent and the star: Arab Christian-Muslim relations and the politics of Israeli occupation.

THE Shin Bet(*), they say, is fomenting discord between Arab Christians and Muslims in the Occupied Territories. The pass laws, for example, are being used to lever the two communities apart. West Bank identity cards identify the religion of the bearer. Increasingly, when the soldiers round up Arab youths for checks, the Christians are allowed to go. The Muslims are detained for often lengthy and aggressive questioning, and draw unpleasant and inaccurate conclusions about the reasons for the Christians' release. The Christians are muttered against in the villages. The mutterings say that they are in the pay of the occupier, and the mutterings become shouts, and the shouts become Islamic, for the brand of Islam bubbling up in the heat and ignominy of frustrated Arab dreams is good at shouting.

About ten per cent of Palestinian Arabs are Christians. Relations with the Muslims have been calm and fraternal for centuries. Saladin and Suleiman were great gentlemen, and their manners were hereditary. The disasters of 1948 and 1967 did not end Muslim-Christian cordiality. It was not the stress of occupation per se which caused the rift. The occupiers, at first, did not discriminate. Christian areas in Israel were depopulated as thoroughly as Muslim ones. And neither, at first, did the occupied discriminate. There was no reason to. The Christians have been unimpeachable Palestinian nationalists. They were prominent in building the infrastructure of the embryonic state-in-waiting in Jordan and Lebanon. Many Christians chaired the meetings of the Intifada committees. Hanan Ashrawi is a Christian. So is George Habash, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a movement not noted for appeasement towards Israel.

Palestinian Muslims have traditionally lived in happy religious moderation, unmoved by the fierce wild devotion of Gulf Islam: benignly uninterested in the pious debates of the Meccan clerics. But nonetheless the Shi-ite Khomeni, speaking the language of the dispossessed, had a welcome amongst Sunnis in Palestine. He won vocal handfuls of faithful in the West Bank, and a vocal multitude in the Gaza Strip.

The Islamic appeal was to the young. It was simple, and painted the Palestinian revolution in primary colours, which looked good in the sun and dust of Gaza. The old slogans, which 40 years of war had discredited, were revived, and given Koranic authority. It was no longer absurd to believe that the Arabs could drive the Jews into the sea. If Allah willed it, it would happen, and will it He most certainly did. It was a lot easier to articulate Palestinian claims and aspirations in the language of Jihad than in the socialist sophistries of the PLO. The young men of Gaza are suckled on stories of |their' villages near Jaffa or Ramle, abandoned by their grandfathers in 1948. They grow up watching soldiers patrolling the refugee camps. Often their schools are closed by the military authorities. Their secular education is rudimentary and does not equip them with scepticism. Their Islamic education is skimpy but dogmatic. They learn from the pamphleteers, not from learned expositors of the Koran. They spend their young adult years waiting at street corners in the hope of being picked for a day's labouring by a Tel Aviv building contractor. Humiliation and resentment come early. The fact of occupation has made normal ambitions seem futile. The doors to advancement within Israel itself are firmly shut. Assimilation is not an option. Only the doors of the mosques are always open. So Palestinian youth is tinder in the fundamentalist flame, and bigger institutional wood is beginning to catch fire.

The Christians are getting scorched. Arab identity is increasingly being defined in Islamic terms. All schemes of pan-Arab unity were necessarily secular. Palestinian Christians are realizing the wisdom of the old Baathist religious non-alignment. They do not know where, within the Middle East, they can turn. The Muslims say that they are not proper Arabs. The Jews say that they are Arabs, and therefore dangerous, The Christians could not, even if they would, stand alongside the Jews. Arab self-policing would make this fatal. The resentment of perceived collaborators produces some bizarre ironies. It is now possible, in some circumstances, for Israeli Arab men to join the Israeli army. An increasing number are taking up the option. This is not out of love for Israel, but because employment prospects are better with an army record and, importantly, because you get a gun to take home if you join. And a gun by the bedside in a predominantly Muslim village can make a lot of difference if the sermon in the mosque that evening has exhorted the faithful (as a recent sermon in Lod did) to wipe out |the blood-suckers; the pork-eaters; the Christians.

Israel, taking its example from Tunisia and Egypt, is making an overt attempt to buy out Islam by pouring money into Islamic strongholds in the Territories. The aim is to create the capitalist conditions of prosperity and opportunity in which revolutionary Islam is unable to survive. It is an audacious and dangerous project. The cynical presumption that greed will overcome the Koran is easy to highlight and warn of in outraged speeches, and the early indications are that the insult has been widely and angrily noted. Any Islamic discontent is likely to increase the heat on the Christians. Add to this the fact that the Christian communities will not benefit proportionately from Israeli investment in Muslim areas, and the conclusion is that the Christians have been strangely rewarded for their good behaviour.

Many Christian Arabs are moving away from the fire. They swell the diaspora in North America and Western Europe. Muslim catcalls follow them, and remain with those left behind. The catcalls say: |Your departure shows that we were right all along. You are Westerners. You are not of us. You are not going away to New York, you are going home'. The emigration rate is much higher than it is for Muslims. The refugees are reluctant and bemused. The change from neighbourliness to hostility has been an abrupt one. As more Christians leave, the less there is to keep the ones who stay. Pastors in the Nablus and Jenin area wonder if they will have congregations in ten years' time. For all the Christians it is increasingly important and difficult to answer the old questions: |Am I an Arab first? Or a Palestinian? Or a Christian?'.

If the Christians were to leave, the Territories would be more inflammable. The Christians act as a retardant. They reduce the risk both of arson and spontaneous combustion. They are PLO members, and the PLO, these days, are relatively sober and responsible people in Israeli eyes.

So the Israeli attempt to stir up Christian-Muslim trouble is an interesting and significant development. Divide and rule has never been an overt part of Israeli policy before. The consequences of division between different factions in the territories were always thought to be too nasty in themselves (or at least too explosive) for discord to be used as a tool for subjugation. The thing about a Palestinian state in the West Bank which was feared most vocally at Israeli dinner parties was that there would be another Lebanon there, with the fundamentalist Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) cutting the throat of the secular, socialist PLO, and vice versa.

It was not the thought of Arab unhappiness which worried the Israelis, but the thought of Syria, Iran or Iraq jumping in to sort out the factions. Israel has been delighted at the proxy war between Syria and Iraq in Lebanon: it pinned down two large and brutal nations and took their hungry eyes off Tel Aviv. But a repeat performance in the West Bank suburbs of Jerusalem would not produce such rapturous Jewish applause. And what would occur in a self-governing Palestinian state could also, it is feared, happen in a West Bank under Israeli control.

And so, by and large, Israel has discouraged inter-Arab conflict in the Territories. It is expensive to police it, and tends to lead to gun-slinging rather than stone-slinging. True, inter-Arab conflict is good publicity for Israel. It allows the Israelis to portray the Arabs as wild medieval barbarians, unshaven, unsuitable to be seen in good international company, and far too irresponsible to have their own state. And true, inter-Arab conflict prevents the pooling of the tremendous Palestinian intellectual and financial resources in a single and sustained effort to bring a Palestinian state into being.

But, goodness knows, there is enough disunity as it is. The last five years have seen a proliferation of Palestinian nationalist factions (at the expense of the PLO's influence and prestige) and a corresponding fragmentation of the nationalist dream. You hear snatches of a Palestinian national anthem sung with desperate and unco-ordinated passion and bravery throughout the Territories. But the very passion stops the snatches being welded to make a single and internationally attractive song. Any Israeli newspaper, opened any day, will talk about bodies found on road sides in the Gaza Strip, or trussed inside Nablus dustbins. The bodies are those of Arabs, and the bullets in the nape of the neck are Arab bullets. The messages claiming responsibility claim that the body is that of a |collaborator'. |Collaborator'. in the days when there was universal and unequivocal support for the PLO, and tight discipline within the PLO command structure, meant one who co-operated harmfully with the occupying Israeli authorities. Now, depending on where it comes from, it could mean |member of the PLO' or |member of the Hamas' or |dangerously incisive political commentator.

This Palestinian disunity has made hope of a Palestinian state pathetically unrealistic. The Rabin government has promised autonomy for the Palestinians. So did Begin, in the Camp David accords of 1979. So did Shamir. Rabin, like Begin and Shamir, has specifically said that talk of a Palestinian legislative body will mean the end of Israeli cooperation over autonomy. Begin said this. So did Shamir. And under Begin and Shamir the Palestinians were proud enough, or unrealistic enough, to refuse autonomy as an insult to Palestinian national aspirations. They knew then, as Begin and Shamir knew, and Rabin knows now, that if a little bit is given (autonomy) it will be possible to refuse the big bit (statehood) for ever.

Palestinians in the Territories have not forgotten the dreams of a state of their own. But they are learning to re-interpret those dreams. They are increasingly capable of imagining them fulfilled if, under Rabin's autonomy, they have the local government so bitterly mocked by Yasser Arafat in the 1980s. They can believe that to have control of drains is to have control of destiny. So they cheer Hanan Ashrawi as she goes with ironic stridency to Rabin and says: |Please Sir: Can we now have what you have been offering for 13 years?'

The Gaza Strip is rather a special case. Israel, with apparent magnanimity, may toss Gaza to the Palestinians, wrapping it in the rhetoric of |autonomy which really means autonomy'. It is not certain that the Palestinians would accept it. They would be wary of Gaza being offered without any concessions on the West Bank. The veteran Israeli diplomat Abba Eban remarked that |the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity'. This is a fair summary of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But an offer of near-statehood in Gaza is an opportunity well worth missing. Gaza, a piece of poisoned gristle from the Israeli table, would be caught by the crowd and pulled apart. The more excitable Arab papers would say that the catching was a triumph. It would not be a triumph. It would be a waste disposal operation. Israel does not want the Gaza Strip. It is too troublesome, and too many Israelis have died there. Israelis have no sentimental or religious feelings for it, as they do for many of the great biblical sites on the West Bank. Egypt would not have it back at any price. Mubarak has terrible difficulties at home with Islamic revivalists, and does not want any more.

Whatever the Palestinian response to an offer of Gaza, Israel will be the winner. If Gaza rules itself, Israel will have got itself out of a dirty and expensive fight which has done its public (and economically important) image no good at all. Palestinian nationalist handbills will be much the poorer without the pictures of blinded children and shanty towns. And if the offer is refused, Israel will shake its head in feigned disbelief and emphatic intransigence when further demands for territory are made, protesting that it has been more than reasonable and that the refusal indicates that the Palestinians are not serious about self determination. This is an old Israeli trick. It has been used a number of times in Arab-Israeli diplomacy since 1948. And each time it is used the more thoughtful Palestinians have commented that there is no cleft stick like the one they are lodged in.

Many Palestinian occupants of the Gaza Strip would be secretly horrified to see the Strip split from Israel. Living under Israeli rule is hard, but many agree with the Israeli prognosis for a fledgling Palestinian state, and see the occupation as the arm of a relatively benevolent Pax Israelia which could be replaced with something much more brutal. West Bankers, by and large, would be sorry to see the Strip go its own way, but some liberal Muslims and many Christians in the West Bank would cheer silently at the secession. A lot of repressive Islamic unpleasantness is concentrated there. In the rich Arab suburbs of Ramallah, Gaza is seen as an isolation ward. It is useful because it helps to stop contagion spreading, but it would be a disaster, many say, if the yellow flag of quarantine became the national flag of Palestine.

Dreams of statehood are tiring dreams. Waking from the heady drunken dream of the Intifada, the Palestinians are tired. Most of them want, most of all, not a state, but merely not to have their homes wrecked by Israeli bulldozers, or their children beaten by border police. The Intifada was (astonishingly, considering the political diversity and relative political inertia of West Bank and Gazan Palestinians) a genuinely popular movement. But it has ended. The shops in Jericho and Jenin are open. It is fairly safe to drive a car with yellow Israeli number plates through Samaria. The active struggle has become a minority interest, and a very violent one. The children have put down their stones. The Hamas fighters have picked up their Kalashnikovs, and fire them into their neighbours' apartments as well as at Israeli army patrols.

So why, with Palestinian aspirations nicely diverted into harmless autonomy, and quite enough strife breeding between Arab factions, should Israel be interested in driving wedges between Arab Christians and Muslims? It seems, at first sight, to be a wildly irrational and counterproductive thing to do.

It must be a belt and braces job. Defamation of Arab character and demonstration of their consequent unsuitability to rule in a state of their own will be the main motive. But the Shin Bet is noted for not overdoing things. It is a subtle and scholarly service, close to government. It knows when to stop, and knows the dangers of lighting unnecessary matches in the volatile Territories. Its actions here must indicate that Israel is not as confident as it has good objective reasons for being about its control of the Palestinians, and in particular its torpedoing of Palestinian national hopes. It also underlines Israel's determination, which some commentators are amazingly slow to note, to deny the Palestinians anything more than the humiliating autonomy offered under Camp David.

The Shin Bet was delighted about the birth and the early vigour of the Islamic movements in Palestine. It was not the midwife of the Hamas, but it was its wet nurse. It saw the early potential of the child as a brush to tar the face of Palestinian nationalism. It smiled with maternal pride when the PLO, in an attempt to head off Hamas' insistent claim to be the legitimate voice of the Palestinians, became more overtly Islamic than it had ever been. Koranic slogans are scattered through modern PLO communiques. The PLO has tried, unsuccessfully, to co-opt Hamas onto the Palestine National Council and the Unified National Command (of the Intifada). This does not increase the comfort of Christian Arabs.

Hamas grew monstrously, and Israel is seriously worried about what it has unleashed. Many Christian Arab leaders assumed that, as Islam rose and killed Israelis, Israel would protect and woo the Christians, valuing them as reasonable counter-balances to Islam. It has not happened that way. Israel is keen on Christians being involved in inter-Arab trouble. Israel does not need to defame Islamic fundamentalism. The West is worried enough about it as it is. But Israel clearly thinks that there is a possibility, which needs to be eliminated, of a non-Islamic Arab faction taking power in Palestine. The PLO, although far preferable to any Iranian-backed junta, is still an enemy. It is Arabs, therefore, as opposed to Muslims, who need to be presented as incapable of government. Since Arab identity and Muslim identity are becoming confused in the Territories, this can only be done by involving Arabs who are unequivocally not Muslims. If Nazarene Christians are seen as depraved pillagers, no-one can write off their depravities as the fanatical actions of a minor Islamic sect. To vilify a Christian Arab is to vilify Arabs: to vilify a Muslim Arab is to vilify only Muslims.

Israel has decided that the value of the Christians as political moderates and counters to nasty Islamic fervour is outweighed by the importance of discrediting Arabs in general. Perhaps it assumes that Christian Arab tenure in Palestine is, in any event, precarious, and that the Christians represent a poor investment risk.

Whatever happens, the Arab Christians of Israel and the Occupied Territories will be caught uncomfortably between clashing factions, unable to please anyone. It is hard for them to believe that the meek stand any chance of inheriting this particular bit of the earth. There are three main temptations facing them. The first is the temptation to blind themselves to the conflict and snuggle down into cosy and merely apocalyptic certainties, ignoring the nasty facts of boundaries, occupation, tear gas and Jihad: to become salt on the very edge of the plate, never reaching the meat it exists for. The second is the temptation to twist the historic Christian priorities and become strident secular activists: to become idolaters bowing the knee to nationalism. This, in modem Palestine, is death by assimilation. The third temptation is to leave, and be diligent Christians in California. The first temptation is being impressively resisted. The second and the third are making some headway. The history of Christianity in the Middle East suggests that these temptations will not triumph. (*) The term Shin Bet is a shortened form of Sherut Habitachon, which is the Hebrew name for the domestic intelligence and security service responsible for security within the borders of Israel and in the Occupied Territories.


[Charles Foster was a Research Fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
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Author:Foster, Charles
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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