America through Arab Eyes

Nicholas Jubber and Michael Hirst

The “war on terrorism” cannot be separated from the conflict between Israel and Palestine, nor from the effort to achieve stable and effective government in the Arab world.

Satellite-dishes and TV aerials peeked out of sugar-cube houses set in haphazard rows along the rocky hills of the Holy Land. From a distance, the town of Beit Sahour, reputed to be the site of the angels’ visit to the shepherds on the first Christmas Day, looked like an idyll in the Judean hills. It was only as we approached the houses that the stark reality emerged. It expressed itself in bullet-marks riddled across concrete; in jagged holes gaping through walls, providing surreal exposure to tattered living rooms that had recently been abandoned; in crumpled buildings of crushed stone that looked out of place between their box-shaped neighbors.

“There have been 260 houses shelled here in the last month,” said Father Ra’ed Abusahlia, the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate, who drove us over to Beit Sahour to show us the extent of the damage in late June. He pointed out an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) military camp lodged on a hill facing the town. “This camp used to be small,” he said, “but now they surround it like a castle.”

He took us inside a villa: its side was rimmed with a balcony, of which only the railing remained. Inside was a black-charred hulk, the floors carpeted in ash and rubble, pieces of metal and random remains of furniture: the soot-stained seat of a wooden chair, a table-leg, the arm of a sofa. Slats and tiles were cluttered in the bathroom, above which disconnected wires hung like jungle creepers. Jagged doorways had been ripped into walls, creating corridors between peeling plaster, floors strewn in broken bits of Tupperware, a pair of oven-gloves, a girl’s ballet slippers. “Sometimes we find missiles in the rubble,” said Father Ra’ed, “and do you know what is written on them? They say, ‘It is forbidden to be used against civilians,’ and ‘Made in the United States.’”

Palestinian reactions

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, television images displayed reactions from around the world. International leaders deplored terrorism and religious extremism, while their citizens expressed solidarity with the victims. One of the more surprising reactions occurred in Iran, where inhabitants lit candles in an unlikely expression of sympathy for the United States. But there was no such bond in the Palestinian Territories. Men and women were filmed celebrating: handing out sweets, clenching their fists, and waving posters of Osama bin Laden. Despite the Palestinian Authority’s best efforts to control the damage caused by this public-relations disaster — the leaders’ speeches proclaiming solidarity, Yasser Arafat’s public donation of blood, the confiscation of journalists’ camera equipment, the physical threats against foreign reporters — an indelible mark had been made on the Palestinians’ international profile.

These scenes of jubilation were not necessarily representative of the Palestinian mood. The inhabitants of Jenin, a Palestinian-controlled West Bank town, couldn’t have celebrated even if they had wanted to: on September 11, they were under attack. Israeli forces razed barracks and checkpoints, shelled a refugee camp containing 13,600 people, and dug trenches around the town. Jenin became an open-air prison. Six people were killed, and 70 injured.

But when US-led coalition forces began their campaign against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, on October 7, news channels again displayed crowd scenes from the Occupied Territories. This time, the Palestinians were not celebrating. They were demonstrating in support of Osama bin Laden. Three of them were shot dead by their own security services — a sign of the Palestinian Authority’s determination not to be caught off guard yet again in its media war with Israel. But with that harsh crackdown by the Palestinian Authority (PA) against a public demonstration, the potential for an internal conflagration within the Palestinian community has been intensified.

This groundswell of support for Bin Laden is not confined to disenchanted Palestinians, but prevails in pockets throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds. If the coalition is to claim a comprehensive victory in its “War on Terrorism,” this is an issue that will have to be faced. The strength of the coalition’s military hardware is beyond question, but it will need to harness a very different and more sophisticated kind of artillery if it is to triumph in what the media has dubbed the “battle for hearts and minds.”

Bin Laden’s following

In his pre-recorded statement, aired on the Qatar-based Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, Bin Laden attempted to appeal to all Muslims, uniting them rhetorically in his invocation of an “Islamic nation” and lamenting the “humiliation and disgrace” to which they had, he claimed, been subjected for the last “eighty years.” He spoke in broad terms of “sons killed” and “blood spilled;” of “sanctities desecrated.” But he also incorporated specific situations liable to appeal to heightened Arab and Islamic sensitivities: “A million innocent children are dying as we speak,” he said, “killed in Iraq without any guilt. We hear no denunciation and we hear no edict from the hereditary rulers.” He spoke about “Israeli tanks” that “rampage across Palestine . . . and we do not hear anyone raising his voice or reacting.”

Bin Laden may have underestimated the international attention accorded to these issues, but he is not in want of sympathetic ears eager to hear his wrathful words. Not only the Palestinians living in Ramallah, Rafah, and Beit Jala, but Arabs throughout the world, consider the treatment of the Palestinians a crime in which the entire Western World is implicated. The information they receive — not always impartially dispensed — tends to ignore the responsibilities of Arab governments and their refusal to integrate their Palestinian refugees. And were the Arab nations willing to accept those refugees, most ordinary Arabs are unaware of the strain that would exert on their fragile economies.

Many Arabs now believe that too little attention is focused on their grievances, and too much on the terrorist attacks, which they regard as isolated and unrepresentative. But after September 11, it is impossible to ignore the danger of terrorism. In standing up to the West, Bin Laden has attained hero status among disenchanted Arabs who consider themselves the victims of Western prejudice. A decade ago, the same adulation was accorded to Saddam Hussein. But Bin Laden’s activities have enabled racist factions in the West to peddle their poisonous brand of anti-Arab feeling all the more readily. And in turning to Bin Laden now, frustrated Arabs are only alienating themselves further from the West, and widening the gap between “them” and “us.”

To Bin Laden’s supporters, the attack on America was not the assault on freedom and democracy that has been depicted by US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. They perceive it as an attack on a foreign policy that they consider unjust.

The sources of discontent

Terrorist attacks against America traditionally targeted her interests abroad. The bombing of the USS Cole last October, the 1998 East African embassy bombings, and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia — all linked to al-Qaeda — fit neatly into this category. These were directly associated with US foreign affairs. But the attack inside America, on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, was an assault on the very heart of America’s political and economic affluence. This was not an assault on the external expression of foreign policy but a strike at the source. Without the strength of her financial and political institutions, America would be unable to wield so great an influence in international affairs. If she is to deal effectively with this attack, America too will need to address the source of her enemies’ strength. In this case, however, neither hijacked aircraft nor Tomahawk missiles constitute effective weapons. The enemies’ “source” is not towers or submarines, nor the Taliban’s shoddy system of military installations; rather, it is the demonstrators who wave posters of Bin Laden and chant his name on the streets of Quetta, and in the refugee camps of the Gaza Strip.

At a UN General Assembly meeting on October 4, Arab representatives set out their stance. “The general condemnation of terrorism,” insisted the Saudi Arabian envoy, Fazi Shobokshi, “extends to state terrorism as practiced by Israel continuously.” There are two recurring issues in Arab diplomatic commentary about the war on terrorism. First there is the effort to include the policies of the Israeli government within a wider interpretation of terrorism than had perhaps been planned. Second there is an appeal — voiced at the October 4 meeting by the Palestinian representative, Nasser Kidwa — to “look into the negative positions and feelings of millions of Arabs and Muslims toward the United States and some other Western states.” Kidwa reasoned: “We have to look into the reasons for a situation that provides a breeding ground for the emergence of groups and actions such as that which took place on the 11th of September.”

One such “reason” is the sanctions imposed on Iraq. In 1996, Madeline Albright, in her capacity as US Secretary of State, was asked on national television for a response to the report that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of economic sanctions. It was, she insisted, “a hard choice,” but “we think the price is worth it.” Arab opinion is broadly united on this issue. The sanctions, they believe, are wrong. Whether Saddam Hussein is responsible for the exacerbation of sanctions, or his despotic activities for their implementation, is considered subordinate to a fundamental moral problem, expressed in the fatality statistics. It is an issue that Bin Laden is able to exploit with alarming facility. He does not bother to explain away the fact that Saddam Hussein has continued to build new palaces for himself while his people are starving; he only needs to invoke the deaths of the Iraqi children, and point out the lack of publicity that their plight has received.

Another source of contention is the presence of US troops on the soil of Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden has pledged that “America will not live in peace” until “the army of Infidels depart the land of Mohammed.” This is in spite of the fact that the US forces are stationed approximately 600 miles away from Islam’s holy places and linked to them only by the fact that they are encompassed by borders established by non-Muslims in 1932. Bin Laden, obsessed by Wahhabism — a fundamentalist Islamic doctrine initiated in the 18th century (more than a millennium after Mohammed) — is plucking at Muslim pride. Why do US forces need to be based on Saudi soil, many Muslims ask, when there are defense agreements with Kuwait and Bahrain that provide more convenient bases for the patrol of Iraqi skies?

The answer probably lies within the murky realm of economics: essential oil supplies are best preserved by the defense of a regime dependent on the United States. Saudi oil is important to the United States, of course, but then Arab intellectuals have long harbored another complaint, asking why the United States has not used its influence to persuade the al-Saud family to improve its human-rights record.

The Saudi issue is a personal one for Bin Laden, himself a Saudi by birth. He is obsessed with an ambiguous quasi-nationalism that expresses itself in hatred toward the regime that disowned and rejected him; he longs for a stricter Islamic regime based on the principles of Wahhabism. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s more than 1 million Christians, already marginalized, oppressed, and bereft of churches, would last long in a Bin Laden kingdom.

Humiliation and guilt

However, the issue that most seems to electrify Arab “hearts and minds” is the complicated plight of the Palestinians. Israel is funded by America, uses weapons provided by America, and receives regular support at the UN Security Council from America — even to the extent that US diplomats have successfully tacked non-implementation clauses on to UN resolutions condemning Israeli policies, thereby thwarting the process of international law. This American support generates very real Arab anger. Palestinian refugees are trapped in squalid conditions in open-air prisons, within sight of affluent Jewish settlements. When a suicide bomb is detonated in Israel, unable to bring the perpetrator to justice, the Israeli government lashes out. Sometimes the IDF targets PA offices, sometimes refugee camps, sometimes impoverished and blockaded towns or villages. Hence we have the attack on Jenin on September 11.

This pattern of Israeli policy produces not only Arab anger, but also humiliation and guilt. There is humiliation, because Arabs ask themselves why fellow Arabs are reduced to such misery at the apparent mercy of an ethnically different and materially more prosperous people, and to the apparent indifference of the rest of the world. There is guilt, because Arab nations have not done enough to alleviate the misery of their fellow Arabs. Those interned in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, have never been accorded the full hospitality of their hosts. Many families have spent 50 years in the world’s most unwelcoming waiting-rooms. More than once, the residents of these refugee camps have been slaughtered by the hundreds for no better reason than the fact that they are refugees. The massacres at Sabra and Chatila — for which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is widely blamed in the Arab world — were only the most notorious of a gory roll-call of atrocities inflicted on Palestinian refugees.

There are many different political complications involved in the refugee issue, most notably the incapacity of Arab governments to cope economically with an influx of new residents. But it is an ironic reflection on the culture of distorted solidarity that the Arab leader who has made the most flamboyant gesture toward the Palestinian people is Saddam Hussein, who pays out $10,000 to the family of every Palestinian suicide bomber, while his own Iraqi people continue to starve.

The humiliation is not confined to the Palestinians. Egypt receives $2 billion annually in US aid, vital to its economic welfare. However, the aid comes with a price: it is, effectively, a non-belligerency pact, that renders the Arab world’s most influential nation politically impotent in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt can criticize, but her words have no force. For many Egyptians, angered by the conditions of Palestinians and embarrassed by their nation’s dependence on a superpower (particularly since Egypt was the world’s first superpower), this is a source of deep humiliation.

Convenient scapegoats

But there is a deeper anger within the Arab world, and Bin Laden has pounced on this anger as a source of support. “Eighty years” he calculated as the period of Arab “humiliation.” Eighty years is roughly the period of time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was a moment of great hope for Arabs when, working alongside the Allies, they secured their freedom after World War I. Independent states were established in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf. Not since the Crusades had their prospects for autonomy and prosperity been so great. But gradually, chinks began to appear in the Allies’ platform of attractive promises. The 1917 Balfour Declaration had offered the potential for a Jewish homeland in predominantly Arab Palestine; in 1948 this became a reality, and the Arabs were frustrated in their expectation of full control over the Arabian peninsula.

The importance of Israel can never be measured by its size. To the Arabic and Islamic mind, this was a foreign nation on the very threshold of Jerusalem. The land of the prophets — grudgingly shared by Jew, Christian, and Muslim — has always had the potential to fan sectarian flames. And in the course of the battle between the Arab states and Israel, when the new state emerged as a miniature superpower capable of suppressing Arab civilians with a brutality matched only by its efficiency, the hatred was intensified, the humiliation magnified, and the guilt exacerbated. The Syrians, Jordanians, and Egyptians lost to Israel time and time again. And each attempt only made life worse for the indigenous inhabitants of historic Palestine.

Not only were they defeated in military terms; the Arab nations also failed to emulate Israel’s economic efficiency, their education and health systems were inferior, their political systems a disaster. Coups and riots punctuated the passage of time in a region where poorly managed governments, riddled with corruption, provided no means for the resolution of political complaints. If an Arab criticized his government, he lost his life or he fled from the country.

In the field of education, the Palestinians did at least reap some benefit from the new alignment of states. Living next-door to Israel, they absorbed some of the Jewish state’s efficiency, and transformed themselves from a largely illiterate rural community into one of the Arab world’s best-educated peoples. But to be well educated and yet still unemployed, with neither passports nor prospects, is hardly a privilege.

In the 53 years since the establishment of Israel, the region has ripped itself apart in a discord of military coups and revolutions, assassinations, invasions, occupations, and civil, regional, and global conflicts. The balance of power has not been corrected, and economic development has been stifled. Oil has created a nouveau riche strip in the Gulf, while the traditional masters of Arab culture in the Levant have been left behind. Arab governments, asked the important questions by their people, have looked desperately for a scapegoat. Israel fits the role of the petty crook, but needs a godfather figure. The pride of a once-mighty culture cannot allow the admission that the Arabic world has been frustrated by an enemy smaller than New Jersey. So Uncle Sam is presented as the Great Satan. And with a villain thus identified to explain away the political and economic impotence of the Arabic lands, the Assads, al-Sauds, and Mubaraks are able to rest in their villas in peace. The anger on the Arab streets has not been assuaged or stifled; it has simply been re-directed. September 11 showed the effect.

America is not innocent. The habit of taking sides — whether for Iraq against Iran, Israel against Palestine, or Afghan Mujihadeen against the Soviet Union — is not only dangerous; it has frequently been counterproductive, culminating in the creation of newly empowered enemies. Osama bin Laden is the latest in America’s long line of Frankenstein’s monsters.

Nor is America the only Western nation at fault. Britain raised Arab hopes through her ambivalent emissary, T.E. Lawrence. The long association of British politicians and cartographic catastrophe is best manifested in the illogical wedges and lumps on modern-day maps of the Middle East. But the Suez crisis of 1956 marked an effective end to Britain’s dominant influence in the region, and the responsibilities, as well as the benefits, accrued to America.

President Bush may have presented human rights and the “commitment to freedom and democracy” as the principles under siege and the impetus for bombing Afghanistan. But oil and air bases in the Gulf, and the preservation of a state that practices the subjugation of an impoverished people in Palestine, have dictated US policy in the Middle East. The high value attached to freedom and democracy in the United States has been discarded in dealings with this troubled part of the world. Despotic governments have remained in power, oppressing their people with schemes of government based on whim and birthright. Ordinary Arabs in Cairo and Riyadh look at America’s freedoms, and notice America’s control over their governments, and wonder why there is so little freedom in their own lands. Nation-building may no longer be regarded as permissible for superpowers in the 21st century, but countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria don’t need to be built. They need to be repaired.

It would be wrong to mimic a Taliban inquiry into a rape case and blame the victim. The events of September 11 cannot and will not be justified. What is essential, however, is to investigate the sources, not of the anti-American madness that propels al-Qaeda, but of the anti-American feeling that drives the protesters in Arab and Muslim streets: the young men waving Bin Laden posters and chanting his name in Quetta and the Gaza Strip; and the commentators so keen to identify fault-lines in Operation Enduring Freedom.

There may be elements of xenophobia and tribalism, but the stew that feeds this frenzy is composed of more than that. It is fed by anger and frustration, the spawn of poor economic development, insufficient human rights, and a humiliating global profile. Responsibility for these problems rests both with the Arab and Muslim governments who have nurtured, exacerbated, and exploited them, and the Western powers who have funded, inserted, and maintained these governments. In order for the “War on Terrorism” to be won, the West cannot blame the East, nor vice-versa; rather, East and West must work together, accepting shared responsibility toward both the crimes of the past and the process of building the future.

Intractable problems

At the age of 13 months, the intifada has grown into a beast that is consuming Israel and the Occupied Territories with its hatred. Unleashed by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on September 28, 2000, the conflict has killed more than 730 Palestinians and 180 Israelis. Neither side seems capable of reining in the violence. Only a concerted effort by both can stop the fighting, yet the two seem so diametrically opposed in the requirements they set forth as the basis for peace that the prospect of a negotiated solution seems remote. The need for a mutually acceptable agreement has never been more acute, but the prospect of attaining such an agreement has never seemed more unlikely.

Israeli closures of large parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have meant that Palestinian workers have been unable to reach their places of employment inside Israel. Countless businesses inside the Occupied Territories have shut down due to lack of tourism, and the economy is estimated to be losing $11 million a day. Consequently, average daily income for residents of the Occupied Territories has plunged to $2, and unemployment has leapt to an average of 47 percent — rising to 65 percent in the worst affected areas. Overall, 257,000 Palestinians are unemployed and 53 percent now live below the poverty line. Over 560 homes (for many families the only fixed asset) have been completely destroyed and 112,900 olive trees (the sole source of income for thousands of Palestinians) uprooted. One third of the inhabitants of the West Bank, and two thirds of those in the Gaza Strip, are refugees.

The desperate impoverishment of the Palestinian people is turning many of them against Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. On October 8, demonstrations in the Gaza Strip against the US air strikes in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of six Palestinians, killed by police trying to disperse the crowds. One source in Gaza told us that Arafat is “losing control” over his people and that “tribalism” is taking over much of the Gaza Strip, resulting in tit-for-tat killings of Palestinians by Palestinians. Meanwhile Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have publicly declared their intention to continue attacks against Israel regardless of any official cease-fire agreements. Although the PA’s attempts to arrest activists from these groups have drawn faint praise from the Israeli government, such policies are greeted with mass condemnation on the streets of the Occupied Territories. Anarchy is only a small step away.

On the Israeli side, every preventative measure has failed to ensure the safety of its citizens. Shaul Mofaz, the IDF chief of staff, stated in early October that there were 8,000 “serious terror attacks” against Israeli targets during the first year of theintifada, although 99 percent of these were perpetrated inside the Occupied Territories. Between October 2000 and September 2001 there were more than 30 Palestinian suicide attacks, and the continued drive-by shootings and suicide bombings in the heart of Israel are testament to the fact that the government’s policy of assassinating wanted Palestinian terrorists is not working. That tactic has resulted in more than 60 killings to date, but has only served to arouse international condemnation, while failing to eradicate the threat of terrorist attacks. Recently more than 10,000 Palestinians marched through the streets of Gaza City to show their support for the uprising against Israel. About 500 masked Hamas supporters were in the crowd, including — in an unprecedented development — 200 women, carrying large posters of suicide bombers, chanting warnings of more attacks inside Israel. Meanwhile a recent poll revealed that 72 percent of Palestinians support the continuation of the intifada.

The September 11 attacks have prompted the US administration to review its foreign policy in the Middle East, and to address the allegation that it has not been an impartial broker in the peace process. President Bush recently stated that the “idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected.” His comments represent the first time a Republican leader has publicly endorsed this position, and were a blow to Ariel Sharon, who committed Israel to the global battle against terrorism, citing Yasser Arafat as “Israel’s Bin Laden.” The Israeli Prime Minister has always been opposed to the tenets of the Oslo Peace Process, upon which the concept of the independent Palestinian state is based. Israeli hawks are beginning to fear that the previously unconditional financial, military, and political support their nation has received from the US may no longer be regarded as a certainty.

This fear seems to be justified by a recent change in American public opinion. A poll published by Newsweek on October 7 showed that a majority of Americans see the need for a changed American policy toward the Middle East. The majority of respondents perceived America’s relationship with Israel and its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be “a major motivation” behind the September 11 attacks. The Newsweek poll showed that 54 percent of Americans support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and 52 percent consider US financial aid to Israel (roughly $2.8 billion per year) excessive. Ghasan al Khatib, a prominent Palestinian political and media analyst, regarded the survey results as “a very important development,” commenting that “this is the first time that American policy toward Israel has become a topic for public discussion.”

Perhaps more worrisome for Israel in the long run is what government sources are calling “the demographic threat.” There are currently 4.9 million Israelis, compared to 4.8 million Arabs, living in the Holy Land. In 19 years, it is estimated that this ratio will have changed dramatically, with 6.6 million Israelis and 8.9 million Arabs in the country. In 50 years, Israel’s projected population of 10 million Jewish citizens will be surrounded by some 800 million Arabs in the region. A political analyst we met in Hebron told us that the Knesset Committee on Defense and Foreign Affairs had recently met to “discuss this development and had come up with solutions such as apartheid and sterilization.”

An ongoing conflict with Palestinians, which always carries the potential for escalation into a regional war, will have devastating consequences for the state of Israel. The Palestinian analyst in Hebron was not alone in believing that the Israeli government has been considering drastic tactics to end the fighting. In July, CIA sources revealed that Prime Minister Sharon was planning to launch a full-scale attack on all Palestinian-controlled territory. This assault was designed to drive Arafat into exile and destroy the Palestinian Authority. A “wanted” list of accused Palestinian terrorists, including members of Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, and Islamic Jihad, was drawn up. Under the plan, those on the list would be “captured and killed.” American pressure has, to date, succeeded in suspending the implementation of the plan. But US intelligence analysts believe that “all the logistic and other preparations” for such an assault are complete, and that if Palestinian suicide attacks continue “the reprisal could really happen.”

Today, Israel seems incapable of suppressing the intifada, but at the same time the intifada seems incapable of terminating the occupation. The situation seems to be a stalemate. Afif Safieh, the Palestinian general delegate to the Holy See, believes that “we need a decisive input from third parties. An acceptable peace with durability, without external support, is not achievable.”

Trapped in the middle

Safieh spoke of a “third party” from outside the region. But there is one indigenous group that could constitute a “third party” in the dispute between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims: the Christians of the Holy Land. Arab Christians could be a much-needed source of moderation in a land where extremism has exacerbated a crisis.

In his message to the “Islamic nation,” aired on the al-Jazeera network on October 7, Osama bin Laden condemned the lack of denunciation when “Israeli tanks rampage across Palestine, in Ramallah, Rafah, and Beit Jala.” He implied that these were Muslim towns. But the reality is not so simple.

During the yearlong intifada, the image of Ramallah as a bastion for Islamic extremism has been fueled by televised news footage of masked demonstrators chanting Qu’ranic slogans. In fact, Ramallah has 10,000 Christians — a quarter of the city’s population — and a municipal protocol that stipulates that the mayor must be a Christian. Rafah, on the other hand, is a stronghold of the hard-line Islamic organization Hamas, which advocates terrorism. An impoverished refugee camp near the Egyptian border, Rafah is the site of frequent battles between Palestinian militants and IDF soldiers. Its desperate inhabitants, bereft of prospects, form precisely the sort of constituency to which Bin Laden’s rhetoric appeals. But the inclusion of Beit Jala in Bin Laden’s televised address is more surprising, since it has traditionally been, and remains, a predominantly Christian town.

Tucked into the hills next to Christ’s birthpace in Bethlehem, Beit Jala is a symbol of the unwilling sacrifice that the intifadahas required of the Holy Land’s Christian minority. Over the last twelve months, Beit Jala has been devastated by Israeli tanks and missiles, as battles have taken place between the IDF and Palestinian fighters from outside the town. Whether Bin Laden referred to Beit Jala in an attempt to attract the support of the Arab world’s 20 million Christians or out of ignorance concerning the demographic composition of the Occupied Territories, his reference highlights the quandary faced by Palestine’s Christian population. While many of their more militant neighbors take to the streets to express their support for al-Qaeda, the Christians are trapped in the middle: caught between their spiritual bond with the Christian West, perceived exponents of Crusades and colonialism, and the cultural, historical, and linguistic heritage that they share with their Musim compatriots.

We visited Beit Jala in late summer, to see for ourselves the extent of its suffering. Houses were pockmarked with bullet holes, sand bags piled up in living rooms as a protection against attack, and precious water tanks emptied of their contents through bullet-sized sluices in their sides. Some houses had lost walls, so that a rubble-strewn sitting room would look out onto the streets like an image from a surrealist painting. A child showed us the scars on his arm and tried to sell us some used bullets as souvenirs. We spoke to some of the residents. “There is shooting every night,” said Samira, a woman in her fifties who has been living on her own since the rest of her family evacuated. She called our attention to a disproportion between the small-arms fire of Palestinian guerrillas and the answering Israeli heavy artillery. “They shoot from here,” she said, “but it is small, then they shoot from there, and it is big.”

“There” is the Israeli settlement of Gilo, built on land illegally annexed by Israeli forces 34 years ago. The conflict rages between Israeli tanks positioned on Gilo, and militant Palestinian gunmen, most of whom are Muslims with no connection to Beit Jala. The Israelis work on the principle that any sign of hostility must be met with an even stronger armed response. The Palestinians, on the other hand, nourish a deep-seated contempt for Israelis that has been forged since their childhood in squalid refugee camps.

“You have to understand,” said Tag, a Palestinian student:

These people can’t get to Jerusalem, they can’t go to work, they want to show their anger. There’s a child nearby, only 5 years old, he was playing in his front yard and he lost his arm. A boy of 17, who lived nearby, was watching TV when the shooting happened. Everybody else went downstairs, they forgot about him, and when they came back, the walls had fallen in. His body had been ripped apart. So it’s because of this, that people feel they want to express their anger.

No justification

But do such tragedies justify the terrorist activities euphemistically described by hard-line Muslims as “martyrdom operations?” When we spoke to the residents of Beit Jala, a suicide bomber had recently killed himself and 19 young Israelis who had been partying in a Tel Aviv nightclub. This event had been condemned by moderate Palestinians, who conceded that it had severely damaged their international standing. “We thought that was really sad,” Tag told us, “So many Palestinians were sad; we want peace, not war. But a lot of people here would like the other side to suffer, to know what it’s really like.”

The issue of terrorism has left many Christians awkwardly placed, with many afraid to denounce it, but appalled by its effects. In a speech to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, presented in the presence of the Holy Father and 233 bishops on October 4, the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem attempted to identify “the deep causes of terrorism.” He explained:

It is the bishop’s duty to help human society in the struggle against terrorism. It is his duty to help identify the roots of evil: political injustice deserves mention, for example regarding the fate of the Palestinian people, as well as the embargo on Iraq which makes life inhuman for millions of innocent people, and every kind of social injustice which divides the world into rich countries and poor countries.

Palestinian Christians are divided. On the one hand they oppose the use of terror as a tool for the “resistance;” on the other hand, they believe that resistance must be fought. Their difficulties are only complicated by Christian organizations such as the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, whose conviction in the divine sanction for Israel’s political foundation has placed their fellow Christians in the Occupied Territories in an awkward position. Father Ra’ed Abusahlia of the Latin Patriarchate complained:

How can a few Zionist and uninvited American Christians come here in order to preach Christianity in the “Cradle of Christianity” and allege that the Palestinian Authority persecutes Christians? They are American Christian Zionists, hiding behind the Bible and trading in American dollars in order to sow discord in the community, doubt in the faith, disintegration of the Church, and the dispersion of the Christians.

Such views underline the difficulty that Arab Christians, as well as Arab Muslims, have with certain factions from the Christian West.

But the attack in America, more than any terrorist attack in Israel, has left no room for ambiguity. The Latin Patriarch, who dedicated his homily the day after the attacks to the “remembrance of the victims in the US,” omitted from that homily any appeal for an investigation into the “causes of terrorism,” choosing instead to extol the virtues of America. In an expression of unambiguous solidarity, he issued a prayer “for the survivors, for the relatives and friends, and for the leaders of America; may God give them faith, hope, and strength to go on building their land, with their faith in God and love for their brothers and sisters in America and in the world.”

The Patriarch’s is one of many Christian voices that provide a source of moderation. Now, more than ever, such voices are crucial. The Arab Christians provide a bridge between the Islamic World and the Christian West. Indeed this has been the case for centuries: during the Crusades, the European invaders employed Nestorian Christians from the Arabian Peninsula as translators and sometimes as mediators.

The Arab Christians are also important as a much-needed source of secularism in a conflict too frequently distorted by the manipulation of religious identities. Arab and Muslim are not indistinguishable terms; bullets make no distinction between Bible and Qu’ran. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict — much as it absorbs and distorts religious beliefs — is ultimately a territorial issue, not a battle between faiths.

But the numbers of Palestinian Christians, already drastically eroded, may be irreparably reduced by the global conflict, as extremism swells on every side. Palestinian Christians now number less than 3 percent of the Palestinian population. There are more Palestinian Christians in diaspora than there are in Palestine. Christian families — faced with bleak prospects for peace, with the threat of confiscation of their land and demolition of their houses, with unemployment and the arbitrary withdrawal of the identity cards that permit them to move in and out of Israeli territory, with shortages of food and medicine and fuel — will use whatever means are available to emigrate. And the process of emigration, attractive to all Palestinians, is often easier for Christians, who have more contacts in the West, and are generally more affluent than their Muslim compatriots. The flight of Christian families is not a phenomenon confined to Palestinians; it is prevalent throughout the Middle East.

When we asked a Catholic bishop in Damascus about the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East, he attributed it to emigration, a low birth rate, and economic ambition. But he also cited the religious bond between Christian Arabs and the West. “The Christian culture is more Western, more universal,” he told us. “The Christians look toward Rome, the Muslims of course don’t, because Rome is not important to them. So of course the Christians should be more Western and more outward-looking.”

Over the coming weeks, months, and possibly years, the duality of identity among Christian Arabs is likely to place them in an awkward but potentially invaluable position. If the war on terrorism escalates and includes strikes against Arab states like Iraq or Syria, they may be placed in a conflict between nationhood and faith. But it is not only these Christians who will suffer. Unless a just settlement is reached in the Holy Land, the consequences of that conflict could reverberate not only among Palestinians and Israelis, but throughout the world.

A potential framework

Both Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are fully aware of the consequences their peoples will suffer if a just settlement is not reached. In the light of these consequences, and the ever-increasing death toll, it defies logic that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem so reluctant to negotiate the terms of a mutually acceptable agreement. For the Israelis, a peace pact could bring the collective security that the country so badly craves; for the Palestinians it would mean statehood, and the justice that they have been seeking for the past 53 years. The relationship between Arafat and Sharon, however, is not conducive to such a settlement. With both leaders so entrenched in their own positions that the concept of compromise is simply unacceptable to them, what each needs is the courage to make groundbreaking concessions that could result in a durable settlement. A peace treaty is attainable, but it must deal with the four main issues of contention: land allocation, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.

Marwan Barghouthi, the Fatah leader on the West Bank whom the Israelis regard as the architect of terrorist attacks inside Israel, recently told us that if Israel would adhere to UN Resolution 242, withdrawing to its pre-1967 borders, compromise could be reached on all other issues. For him, the most important aspect of the “right of return” issue is that Israel accept thede iure right of every Palestinian refugee to return to his home. This would redress, in part, a grievance that has spanned two generations. Barghouthi acknowledges that it will not be possible for all refugees to return to the homes where their families were living in 1948, but suggests that alternative compensation could be available. Examples of such compensation might include financial reimbursement for each family that is unable to return, or repatriation to a third country — perhaps in Europe or North America.

Regarding Israeli settlements, an agreement was very nearly reached between Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at their Camp David discussions last year. The plan involved the annexation of settlement territory to Israel in three blocks, leaving 300,000 settlers (including those in some of the most contentious areas such as Hebron and the Gaza Strip) in need of repatriation within the borders of Israel proper. In return for the land acquired through the annexation — roughly 5 percent of the West Bank — Israel would concede an equal amount of its land, suitable for habitation and farming, to the future Palestinian state. Such a land swap would mean that Israel could withdraw from the territory occupied in 1967, thus allowing the formation of a Palestinian state inside this area, with the West Bank linked to the Gaza Strip by a secure road.

Of all the contentious issues, the most complex is that regarding the status of Jerusalem, a city of crucial significance for two nations (Israeli and Palestinian) and three religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). A simple solution would be to split the city along the pre-1967 borders, allowing West Jerusalem to serve as the capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Bearing in mind its global religious significance, however, the Vatican has insisted that the Old City should be granted a unique international status, allowing freedom of access and worship to those of all faiths. An observer force, perhaps comprising UN soldiers, could guarantee this neutral status in its early stages. The long-term administration of the area could be overseen by a joint council of Palestinians and Israelis, including religious figures as well as secular politicians, to take into account the diverse interests of the various communities within the Old City’s walls.

This basic framework could be realized within a time-scale of six months, if some straightforward prerequisites are accepted:

• an agreement to a complete cessation of violence by both sides, along with the decommissioning of all weapons, except those held by the legitimate army and police forces;
• the withdrawal of all Israeli soldiers from the Occupied Territories, to be replaced by an international protectorate force (supplied by the UN) that would protect a buffer zone between the two sides for a flexible period of time while the agreement was implemented; 
• the arrest and prosecution of those involved in terrorism on both sides; 
• an Israeli commitment to remove settlers from within the borders of the Palestinian state — with minimal structural damage to the buildings, so that these could be used by returning Palestinian refugees.

Many other factors would need to be taken into account for the successful implementation of this accord, such as negotiation over the contested Holy Sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and the allocation of water supplies. However, these issues could be discussed after the initial phases of the agreement have been completed, and each side had time to readjust within a climate of peaceful coexistence. The fundamental agreement would satisfy the primary objectives of both peoples. For the Israelis there would be security, and for the Palestinians, justice. Perhaps then both sides would be able to live in peace.


Nicholas Jubber and Michael Hirst. "America through Arab Eyes." Catholic World Report (November, 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report an international news monthly.

Copyright © 2001 Catholic World Report