Saturday, July 20, 2019

New law draws line between Palestinian Christians and Muslims in Israel

By Claire Matsunami - March 05, 2014
Section: [Main News]
Tags: [Palestinian citizens of Israel]

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. Photo by Lazar Simeonov.


On Monday the 24 February, Israel’s Knesset passed a controversial new bill that will create a legal distinction between Muslim and Christian Arabs, categorizing them as “non-Arabs,” a separate minority.

The bill, which concerns the creation of new positions on Israel’s Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity, has drawn criticism from those who see it as an attempt to divide the Palestinian community living within Israel.  Drafted by Minister Yariv Levin of Netanyahu’s Likud party, the bills promises to create equal employment opportunities for Christian Arabs.

In an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv, Levin explained the reasoning behind this categorization: “It’s a historic and important step that could balance the State of Israel and connect us to the Christians, and I am careful not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs.”

“We and the Christians have a lot in common,” he said,  “They’re our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within. On the other hand, there’s a message here: We will use an iron hand and demonstrate zero tolerance of Arabs who are liable to identify with the terror of the Palestinian state.”

Arabs make up a 1.7 million minority (about 20%) of Israel’s 8 million people. Arab Christians constitute 120,000 of that minority. 

Palestinian officials denounce the bill

On Wednesday, PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi released a statement condemning the law, calling it an effort to transform the occupation into "an outright religious confrontation," and stressing that Israel is adopting a "policy of the classification of its citizens based on religion or ethnicity" as part of a larger system of apartheid.

Several critics have pointed to two Christian villages, Ikrit and Biram, which were forcibly evacuated during the 1948 war.  The villagers of both villages were promised the right of return, but as of yet, Israeli authorities have barred all attempts to repopulate the area. 

In the debates that lead up the final vote on Levn’s bill, Minister Hanin Zoabi (Balad) criticized Levin: “If you want to correct the injustice caused to Christians, bring them back to Ikrit and Bir’am. Your bill sharpens the issue of Arabs’ identity and the state institutions and Knesset members’ hostility toward them.” Zoabi was sent out of the room following the tense confrontation.

Many fear compulsory army enlistment 

With these developments, there is also a push for Israeli Christian Arabs to enter compulsory army service. All non-Druze Arabs are currently exempt from conscription.  Israel’s small Druze population (who speak Arabic, follow an offshoot of Islam, and share significant history and culture with other Palestinians) signed an agreement in the 1950’s that submitted to mandatory enlistment.  They are recognized as a separate religion and identity.

In 2013, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he hopes to apply the universal draft to Christians as well, according to Haaretz. 

Army Major Shadi Rahal, a Palestinian, told the Associated Press that 208 Muslims and 137 Christians had signed up voluntarily in 2013. 

“We are supporting this bill,” Halul told the Times of Israel, “It makes justice for Christian needs and solves discrimination against them within the Arab community that the state has falsely put them in for 65 years.”

Rifat Kassis, a Palestinian Christian and General Coordinator for the advocacy group Kairos, spoke to the Palestine Monitor about the prospects of Israel forcing military conscription on Christian citizens.  

“If Palestinian Christians had to stand at the checkpoints, or had to disperse demonstrations, or had to arrest children… this would emphasize what Israel is trying to show—that they are not Palestinians,” Kassis said, contemplating what would happen if Palestinian Christians citizens of Israel were forced to enlist in the Israeli army.  

In July of 2013 Israeli Christians formed a new political party named “Sons of the New Testament,” which pushes for enlistment in the army and full integration into Israeli society.  Many who support this stance look to the situation of Christians in other Arab countries, specifically Syria, as an example of what happens to disenfranchised Christian minorities in the Middle East. 

Objection to enlistment in Arab Christian Community 

The number of people who actively support Christian conscription is very small. The majorities of Christians in Israel identify themselves as Palestinians and are not eager to bear arms against family members living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or any other neighboring Arab nation.

According to Haaretz, Minister Basel Ghattas of the Balad party contacted Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto in an effort to involve the Pope. In his letter, he called the attempts to enlist Christians “a divide and conquer policy applied by Israel to harm the Palestinian minority inside Israel.” He expressed concern about the “Israelization of the Arab minority,” and the weakening of the Palestinian identity. 

Rifat Kassis of Kairos also spoke of the great threat this division will pose for the future of the Palestinian community in Israel: “They want to break our spirit… we are put on the defensive trying to prove that we are Palestinian and Arabs. This will have a devastating impact on the Palestinian community.” 

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