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Palestinian Christians swept aside as Israel rewrites history

Palestine, in a modern sense, is not about religion, it's about justice.

He vanquished a dragon, saved a princess and passed into myth. What popular culture knows about St George (or Georgius, in Latin) pretty much begins and ends with the children's fairy tale, but there is a historical figure underneath that legend. Born about 1,800 years ago, St George's father was a soldier in the Roman army, and his mother was a Palestinian Christian. After his death, he was hallowed by the Catholic Church, but what is less known is that Muslims also venerated his name.

It remains one of history's curiosities that when European Crusaders invaded Palestine in 1096, they did so under a banner dedicated to a soldier who was born and buried in the Holy Land eight centuries earlier.

Few places on Earth, if any, have inspired so much jealous devotion, not to mention bloodshed, as historical Palestine has over the centuries. More often than not, that blood has been shed by foreign invaders, from both East and West.

After more than 60 years since the Naqba and the start of Israeli occupation, it is natural to be weary of the conflict. It could also be argued that conflict is natural to this land.

But Israeli policy is wreaking a decidedly unnatural consequence. A land that has been home to Christians, Muslims and Jews for millennia is being reshaped.

Evictions of Palestinians from homes and villages increases year by year as Israeli settlements steal more land. It is nothing short of ethnic cleansing. There is serious talk of outright annexation of Area C - 61 per cent of the West Bank - without which Palestine will never be a viable state. Centuries of coexistence may soon be consigned to the history books.

Under the rule of Islamic caliphates since the 7th century, Christians and Jews coexisted with Muslims peacefully for the most part. They were not always afforded the same rights, but they were protected and integrated into society, a marked contrast to the anti-Semitism that persisted in Europe.

The conflict that defined the Holy Land, until the 20th century at least, was the invasion of the Crusaders and so-called clash of civilisations between Muslims and European Christians. Another historical irony is that Jews fought side by side with Muslims in the defence of Jerusalem against the first Crusaders.

The razing of Jerusalem's Church of Holy Sepulchre in 1009 is seen as the pretext for the European monarchs' obsession with the Holy Land (although the church was soon rebuilt). What followed less than one century of Crusader rule in Jerusalem, Salaluddin's retaking of the city in the 12th century and several centuries of intermittent war.

There are still poignant lessons from that history. After the Siege of Jerusalem, Crusaders slaughtered most of the city's Muslim and Jewish population; after Salaluddin's victory, Jews and Christians were allowed to settle. And, of course, after centuries of bloodshed, the European incursions were ultimately, completely futile.

After 1948, that land of Palestine became only a historical note, and a dream of Palestinians who were forced from their homes. After the Naksa, the 1967 War, that historical Palestine was further whittled away until, today, less than 22 per cent of the first proposed independent state of Palestine remains. Even that is now under threat.

Palestinian Christians have shared their Muslim compatriots' pain in the past 64 years, increasingly marginalised in a land they have inhabited for over 2,000 years. Across the region, dwindling Christian communities are often blamed on the rise of Islamists but this is an oversimplification and, in Occupied Palestine, almost wholly a mistake.

Certainly some Islamist groups, heavy on ideology and light on political nous, have been their own worst enemies. Hamas is not blameless in its treatment of Gaza's Christian minority. Last week, Christians demonstrated after stories emerged that five people, three of them children, had been forced to convert to Islam. The story may just be rumour, but such an act would be indefensible. And Gaza's Christians are alienated enough to believe it is possible.

In truth, however, Hamas has neither the desire inside Gaza, nor the influence outside of it, to truly marginalise Palestinian Christians. The Christian Palestinian population has suffered, less visibly, just as Muslims have. Christians now account for only 4 per cent of the West Bank population and less than 10 per cent of Palestinians in Israel.

Over the last year in particular, attacks by Israeli extremists on Christians have increased. A Christian cemetery on Mount Zion has been desecrated and two churches vandalised (one of them, Jerusalem Baptist Church, had already suffered arson twice since 1982). "Death to Christianity", "We will crucify you" and "Jesus son of Mary the whore" graffiti stain the walls. That defilement would cause outrage in almost any country, but not in Israel.

It is in Bethlehem, birthplace of Christ, where the exodus has been most pronounced, with more than 10 per cent of Christians leaving just in the past decade.

Israel's ill-conceived plan to expand a majority Jewish state in historical Palestine does not distinguish between Palestinian Muslims and Christians. That hollow distinction has allowed Israel to peddle the old line about a "clash of civilisations", when Palestinians have been living side by side for millennia.

The Palestinian struggle has always been about more than religion. Historical Palestine is not just about 64 years of struggle against an illegal occupation, or Israeli efforts to erase the history books, but about how Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together for centuries. Palestine, in a modern sense, is not about religion, it's about justice.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_

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