e-mail us
Bishops briefed on Palestinian issues

NCR Staff

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah articulated the pain and frustration of the beleaguered Christian community in the Holy Land in an address he delivered here to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Sabbah told the conference that the last eight months in the Mideast have been marked by “swelling waves of violence” that include the shelling of Christian towns and villages. “Normal life is impossible,” Sabbah reported. “Lack of jobs for Christians as for all Palestinians makes providing food a hard matter.” The patriarch said the conflict is having a grave effect on schooling, a primary pastoral mission of his diocese.

Accorded the title of patriarch, as are other bishops of dioceses founded by an apostle, Sabbah was one of a panel of three speakers on the Mideast. It included the Clinton administration’s former special envoy to the region, Dennis Ross, and Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, adviser on international affairs to the bishops’ conference and former director of the conference’s Office of International Justice and Peace.

Decrying violence as an unacceptable means of resolving conflict, the patriarch told his audience that while violence on the Palestinian side expresses itself in stone throwing, gun shooting, mortar fire and suicide bombings, it takes other forms on the Israeli side: the sealing of Palestinian towns and villages, the plowing under of agricultural fields, the cutting down of olive groves, the bulldozing of houses, the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of civilians, the protection of settlers who themselves use violence.

Unfortunately, Sabbah said, the voices of Christian Palestinians go unheard in the United States, where U.S. politicians and the media look only at the manifestations of the conflict in the Mideast rather than its cause: Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian land.

“To treat Christian Palestinians as a purely religious community without any legitimate national aspirations or distinct culture dehumanizes them,” Sabbah said. He said that Christian Palestinians see themselves as part of the Palestinian people. He called upon the church in the United States to redefine the conflict in more accurate terms, to insist on compliance with United Nations resolutions, to collaborate with Jewish communities for a new shared vision of security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians, and to advocate for the future of Jerusalem.

About 170,000 Christians live in Israel and the occupied territories, of whom 70,000 are Catholics. Sabbah expanded on the difficulties faced by the Christian community there in an interview NCR held with the patriarch and Christiansen.

“Freedom of movement is very restricted. There are no more jobs,” Sabbah said. “We are living in the most difficult time in the history of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The church and other organizations are giving much aid, but the help is very limited, and we wonder how the people are surviving.”

Thirty-five thousand of the 50,000 Christians living in the West Bank reside in three towns, Bethlehem, Beit-Jala, and Beit-Sahour, which are shelled heavily by the Israelis on a routine basis.

“Early on it was done in response to provocation. Now the Israelis have become more blatant in [pursuing] a strategy of ‘general deterrence.’ That means they just fire at will against the civilian population,” said Christiansen. “It’s a collective punishment. It’s also a direct attack on civilians in defiance of international law.”

By March, the shelling had caused 1,000 people to emigrate from Beit-Sahour. Emigration figures on the other Christian towns are not available. Christians account for approximately 2 percent of the population in Israel and the occupied territories.

“The church feels -- and so does the Holy See -- that there should be a living Christian community in the land of Jesus,” said Christiansen, who addressed the bishops’ conference on the Holy See’s position toward the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Pope John Paul II has for years appealed to United Nations Resolutions 242, 338, 194 as guiding principles for settling the conflict and is placing increasing emphasis on international law. On that point, the pontiff differed with the position of the Clinton administration, which minimized Israeli violations of international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids the annexation of captured territory and settlement of population on occupied territory.

Instead, Israel has continued to build new settlements since the 1993 Oslo accords that set the framework for peace talks. Indeed, the Barak government built settlements at three times the rate previous Israeli governments had.

Sabbah spoke of the enormous reservoir of mistrust among Palestinians. Rooted in years of Israeli annexations, confiscations and settlement-building, it burst forth in the intifada, he said. Intifada is an Arabic word used for an uprising.

“The legitimate expectations of Palestinians as well as of the international community was that under the terms of Oslo the Palestinians would take possession of captured land. Negotiations should have dealt largely with technical details. Negotiations were not meant to substitute for implementation of resolution 242,” Christiansen said.

United Nations Resolution 242 provides that in return for peace with the Israelis the Palestinians are to receive the land occupied by the Israelis in 1967, but Israel has continued to create new conditions on the ground since 1993 that have left Palestinians negotiating for much less land than they initially expected, Christiansen said. These changed conditions include not only new Israeli settlements but also bypass roads connecting settlements that divide the West Bank. The inequitable allocation of water resources, which the Israelis have controlled since 1967, is another sore point.

“Water flows freely to Israelis and is rationed to Palestinians,” Christiansen said. “The Bethlehem area gets water three days every three weeks. Pregnant women die. Infants die.”

As the intermediary between Palestinians and Israelis, the United States suffers from a credibility problem with many Palestinians, Christiansen said. The United States is providing Israel with much of the arms the Israelis are using against the Palestinians. And while the Palestinians have been promised much by the United States, they’ve been given very little. In contrast the Israelis have been rewarded for every concession they’ve made, Christiansen said. Not since the first Bush administration in the early 1990s has there been a hold on aid to Israel.

Alternative views of the peace process were sometimes put forth by the panelists speaking to the bishops’ conference. While Ross said a mistake had been made in focusing on making peace from the top down rather than building support for peace from the bottom up, he spoke of the historic opportunity for peace that existed last year and put the blame for its loss squarely on the shoulders of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Arafat refused a bargain that was as good as the Palestinians were ever going to get, Ross said. However, Sabbah said the propositions put forward to the Palestinians were Israeli propositions that in the end Arafat could not accept.

Just what Arafat was offered by the Barak government is a matter of dispute among experts, Christensen said. The claim has been made that Arafat was offered 95 percent of the occupied territories, but some cartographers say it could be as low as 65 percent. “When you’re talking about by-pass roads, it’s not just roads, it’s 150 meters on either side,” Christensen said.

“We just don’t know,” Christiansen said. “The experts looking at the maps draw a lot of very different conclusions on how much land would be under Palestinian control.”

In reiterating a statement they made in November about the necessity for a resumption of the peace talks in the Mideast, the bishops said they were attempting to raise awareness of the deteriorating situation in the Holy Land and to reaffirm solidarity with the church there.

“We cannot tire of reminding our own Catholic community and the wider world that the Christian presence is vital to the Holy Land, not as an historic remnant but as a living community of faith,” said Cardinal Bernard Law, chairman of the bishops’ committee on international policy.

Law said individual American Catholics can deepen their involvement in the Middle East by educating themselves on the issues and speaking out in their role as citizens and by offering material assistance to those in need. Law said Americans have unmatched opportunities for interfaith dialogue, which they can bring to people in the Holy Land.

Bishop Robert Carlson of the diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., offered an amendment to the Israeli-Palestinian resolution that called on U.S. dioceses to partner with Catholic parishes in the Holy Land. His own diocese has a sister parish in Zabbdeh in biblical Samaria on the West Bank where the annual income is $800 a worker. Since the siege, peace and justice committees of various parishes within the diocese have also been assisting the parish in Zabbdeh.

During the Jubilee Year, a group of 135 people from the Sioux Falls diocese went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visited Zabbdeh. “I’m not sure the press in this country accurately communicate the issue. My perceptions before I went were different from after I went,” said Carlson, who said the American press tends to convey the issue as a Jewish-Muslim issue or as Israelis defending themselves against terrorists.

Why should Catholics care if a tiny percentage of Christian Palestinians disappear?

“It would be awful if all those great places just became museums, where Jesus was born. For me, it would be a disaster if there were no Christians praying the faith,” said Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001