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Outrage greets new and ‘divisive’ Israeli legislation

04 April 2014


Praying: a Christian lights a candle in the Catholicon Chapel, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

Praying: a Christian lights a candle in the Catholicon Chapel, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem

PALESTINIANS in Israel are preparing to resist a law passed recently by the Knesset (parliament) which establishes, for the first time, a legislative distinction between the indigenous Palestinian Arab Christians and Palestinian Arab Muslims who are Israeli citizens. This would identify Palestinian Christian Israelis as "non-Arabs".

One of the right-wing sponsors of the legislation, the Likud MP Yariv Levin, said that Jews and Christians "have a lot in common. [Christians] are our natural allies - a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within."

When Israel was created in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled, or were forced to move to neighbouring states, in the belief that they would soon be allowed to return. The vast majority remain in exile, but about 150,000 remained on the land, and became citizens of the new state, without relinquishing their political or cultural attachments.

Today, the Arab community in Israel numbers about 1.4 million, and accounts for some 20 per cent of the total population. The concern of right-wing Israelis is that the fast-increasing Arab population constitutes a security threat. They also fear that a day could come when Muslim and Christian Arabs would outnumber Jews in the Jewish state.

There is, thus far, little indication of how the new law will affect the daily lives of Arab Christians, but the Anglican Archdeacon for Israel and Palestine, the Ven. Samuel Barhoum, said that Palestinians, as a whole, rejected the measure. "We certainly didn't ask for this, or for anyone to put us in a category that separates us from our nation or our people. Israel is trying to divide the Arab people."

Archdeacon Barhoum, who lives in Nazareth, said that Palestinians should "start to educate the new generation about nationality and their roots in their land, so that they understand what is going on here. No one can choose my nationality for me. I don't want to be separated from my Muslim brothers. We are both facing severe hardship, and I don't want them saying, 'He has more than me because he is a Christian.' We must face it together. I am Christian, Arab, and Palestinian, all three in one."

Canon Naim Ateek, of St George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, who is the head of the Sabeel Ecumenical Theology Center, said that he was certain that the Palestinian community in Israel was mature enough not to fall into such a "despicable religious trap", and would "reject this new legislation". Palestinian "unity and solidarity", hand in hand with "our determination to work for a just peace, inclusive democracy, and human dignity for all the people of our land", would, he said, undermine the new legislation.

The Israeli MP Ahmed al-Tibi has also strongly criticised the new law. He said that its intention was to split Palestinians by stating a preference for one part of the community over the other. "The vast majority of Christians in Israel completely reject it," he said. A prominent Palestinian Christian politician, Hanan Ashrawi, told Gulf News that "the law that splits Christians from Muslims is a racist law meant to create a new reality on the ground. If achieved, that reality will destroy the Palestinian national and historic identity."

Unlike the Jewish population of Israel, Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the army. One Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Gabriel Nadaf, also from Nazareth, has created controversy by encouraging Arabs in Israel to sign up for military service. "We all live in the same home, which we must defend."

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