jonathan spyer , THE JERUSALEM POST
Unremarked upon by the Western media, a systematic campaign of persecution is taking place in the Gaza Strip, and to a lesser extent in the West Bank. The general silence surrounding this campaign aids its perpetrators. The victims are Palestinian Christians, in particular the small Christian community of Gaza.
The perpetrators are a variety of Islamist groups, all of which are manifestations of a process of growing Islamic militancy and piety taking place across the region.
The Christian population of the Gaza Strip is small - 2,000-3,000 people. Gazan politics has long been characterized by a conservative, Islamic bent. Gaza's Christians as a result have tended toward political invisibility.
Since the Hamas coup of July 2007, this position has become increasingly untenable. Islamist organizations, empowered by the indifference of the authorities, have begun to target Christian institutions and individuals in Gaza with increasing impunity. Intimidation, assault and the threat of kidnapping are now part of daily reality for Christians.
The trend became noticeable with a series of attacks on the Palestinian Bible Society's "Teacher's Bookshop" in Gaza City last year. The shop was the subject of a bomb attack in April 2007. Its owner, Rami Khader Ayyad, was abducted in broad daylight, and found dead on October 7, 2007.
Over the following year, a series of bomb attacks on Christian institutions in Gaza took place. Particular attention was paid to places of education. The Rahabat al-Wardia school run by nuns in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City, and the American International School in Beit Lahiya were both bombed, most recently in May 2008. The Zahwa Rosary Sisters School and the El-Manara school, both in Gaza City, were also attacked this summer. The YMCA Library was bombed, as was the Commonwealth War Cemetery.
Most of these attacks took place at night, and hence casualties were avoided. In a number of cases guards were the victims of violence.
Who is carrying out these attacks? The perpetrators are thought to be Salafi Islamist groups like Jaish al-Islam, Jaish al-Uma and similar organizations. The larger Popular Resistance Committees terror group has also stated that the Christian presence in Gaza should be eradicated, since it exposes Gazans to a pro-Western, anti-Islamic influence.
Where are the Hamas authorities in all this?
Hamas is officially committed to tolerance toward the Christian community, and spokesmen for the authorities have criticized the attacks. In practice, however, only superficial investigations have taken place, and arrests are rare. In the few cases where arrests have been made, the suspects were not charged and were quickly released. This was the case, for example, with two members of the Jaish al-Islam who were suspected of involvement in the YMCA bombing.
The persecution of Christians is not emerging from a small Islamist fringe. Rather, it is part of a larger process of Islamization taking place in Palestinian society. The rise of Hamas is part of this.
But the cadres of the divided Fatah movement are not immune. The Popular Resistance Committees group, for example, noted above for its anti-Christian stance, was founded by ex-Fatah officers who sought an organization reflecting their religious zeal.
The situation in the West Bank is different, reflecting the larger Christian population and the greater strength of secular forces. Yet here, too, anti-Christian trends are serving to embitter lives.
A recent article in the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper drew attention to the long-simmering issue of "compulsory purchase" of land owned by Christians. This trend has been particularly noticeable in the Bethlehem, Ramallah and al-Bireh areas. Individuals with close links to the Palestinian Authority security forces, or to powerful clans, have adopted a variety of means to lay their hands on Christian-owned land. These have included false registration documents, squatters, and the involvement of senior PA security officers.
The Al-Ayyam columnist who raised this issue, Abd al-Nasser al-Najjar, lamented that no "constructive action" by the authorities to protect the Christians has taken place. Najjar listed the PA authorities, the Palestinian political factions, and the myriad of NGOs present in the West Bank among the bodies who might have been expected to take an interest in this situation, and who have not done so.
The official bodies of Palestinian nationalism continue to claim that the Palestinians are a single nation, with harmony between Christians and Muslims. The official leadership of Palestinian Arab Christianity repeats this claim.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Palestinian Christians are fearful, and are voting with their feet. Bethlehem, for example, has seen its Christian population decline from a 60 percent majority in 1990 to under 20% of the population today. The small and harassed Christian community of Gaza may simply cease to exist in the near future.
These events reflect broader regional processes. Their failure to become known is also part of a larger trend. The foreign media, NGOs on the ground and some Western political leaderships prefer to foster a version of events in the West Bank and Gaza based on illusion and willful ignorance of the evidence. The slow death of an ancient community is one of the fruits of this.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.
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