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Middle East Issues





Arab Christian Groups Villify Israel


Introduction

Palestinian Christians have long been among Israelís most vocal critics, using every opportunity to portray the Jewish state as a malevolent force in world politics and to downplay the religious component of the war against Israel. Because of their proximity to Christianityís most holy sites, they have ready access to visiting Christian leaders in the West who are all too willing to accept a distorted and incomplete narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

According to the narrative offered by these Christian leaders, Arab and Muslim terrorism against Israel is a regrettable but understandable response to the Israeli "occupation" of the disputed territories. This narrative is demonstrably flawed, as violence against Israelis and Jews in the region pre-dates the 1967 war by decades.

According to the narrative offered by these Christian leaders, peace is solely contingent on Israeli concessions and efforts to reform the Jewish state. And while these leaders condemn Israel, they remain silent about the Arab worldís refusal to accept Israelís right to exist, the mistreatment of Christians at the hands of Muslim majorities in countries throughout the Middle East and the virulent agenda embraced by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

When challenged with instances in which Israeli withdrawals and peace offers have been met with increased violence, these spokespersons portray the peace offers and withdrawals as insubstantial, dishonest attempts to fool people into thinking the Israelis want peace. For example, they have falsely described the Camp David peace plan put forth in 2000 as carving the West Bank into "bantustans," and dismissed the Gaza withdrawal as meaningless because it was a "unilateral" action and not the result of negotiations.

When violence flares up between Israel and its adversaries, these Christians use their access to churches in the West to broadcast such a distorted narrative about the causes and effects of violence in the Middle East.

Statements from Arab and Palestinian leaders about the recent round of violence initiated by Hamas and Hezbollahís rocket attacks and kidnappings fit this pattern. Below is an analysis of the statements recently issued by prominent Arab and Palestinian Christian leaders and the groups they have formed.

Mitri Raheb

On June 30, 2006, Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor located in Bethlehem issued a statement portraying two Israeli offensives as an attempt to distract attention from "two very important peace offers." Raheb writes:

It seems to me that Israel does not fear anything as much as a "peace offer." The two invasions had therefore the aim of creating such storm conditions, so that diplomacy can continue only to focus on managing an escalating conflict rather than on seizing the opportunity and momentum for a true peacemaking.

The first peace offer Raheb invokes is the "Saudi Peace Plan" which was approved by the Arab League on March 28, 2002. Raheb asserts that Operation Defensive Shield was an attempt to derail this offer. (Operation Defensive Shield marked the return of Israeli troops into portions of the West Bank they had previously left as a result of the Oslo Accords.)

A little context is necessary when assessing the accuracy of Raheb's description of these so-called "peace offers."

First, Operation Defensive Shield, initiated on the same day the Arab League approved the "Saudi Peace Plan," was a response to an unprecedented campaign of terrorist attacks, the largest of which was the previous day's bombing at a Passover Seder in a Netanya hotel that had killed 30 Israelis and injured 140.  It is also important to note that according to Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy and chief peace negotiator for the first Bush and Clinton administrations, the Arab League did not condemn the Passover Seder attack.

Hamas took credit for this bombing in Beirut where the Arab League was meeting. Hamas never takes credit for bombings in Beirut, but they did this in response to the Arab League. Not a single delegate, not a foreign minister, not a leader, condemned the act or the group. The message was that somehow this is acceptable.

As long as Israel is acknowledged as a fact but not acknowledged as a country that has a right to be there, you will see neither compromise justified nor terror discredited.

Clearly, the failure of the Arab League to condemn the Passover bombing or its perpetrators suggests Arab leaders were not as serious about peace as Rev. Raheb suggests.

The second peace proposal Rev. Raheb invokes is the so-called "Prisonersí Document" which he describes as "calling for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, limiting the resistance within these borders and recognizing the previous accords."

A previous CAMERA analysis of the Prisonersí document indicates that:

Aside from urging internal Palestinian unity, the key points of the document call for

  • establishment of a Palestinian state in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip;
  • securing the so-called "right of return";
  • consolidation of all Palestinian terror groups into one unified group which will continue attacks, any negotiations notwithstanding.
  • Palestinian "resistance with the various means" focused within the West Bank, and mobilization of "all resistance forces" to help achieve the release of Palestinian prisoners. (Although it calls for a focus on the West Bank, the document does not forbid attacks elsewhere.)

The Prisonersí Document does not explicitly call for recognition of Israel; and it presses for the "right of return," widely understood as a way to destroy the Jewish state via demographic means.

Additionally, instead of advocating an end to anti-Israel violence, the document calls for "clinging to the option of resistance"––a term regularly used by Palestinians to describe terror attacks against Israelis. This point was not lost on Jordanian writer Yasir Za'atirah, who wrote in the London-based Al Hayat newspaper:

When one reads the text of the document, one is surprised by Mahmud Abbas's enthusiasm for it, because it conflicts with many of his proposals, especially with regard to rejecting militarization. The document insists on all forms of resistance. In fact, it urges the formation of a unified front for resistance. (May 31, 2006, translated by BBC Monitoring International Reports)

In addition to exaggerating the importance of the Prisonersí Document (which Rev. Raheb characterizes as "the agreement reached in Gaza this week"), the reverend does not mention the Palestinian rocket attacks and kidnapping that preceded Operation Summer Rains, the Israeli offensive into Gaza that began on June 28.

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center

Sabeel, a group well-known for its use of deicide imagery in reference to the Jewish state and its support for a one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, issued two statements in response to the latest round of violence initiated by Hamas and Hezbollah. In the statement, Sabeel exhibits its characteristic world view in which cause and effect are reversed and the existence of Palestinian suffering is solely the consequence of Israeli behavior, not the failure of Palestinian leadership.

• On June 18, Sabeel issued a statement riddled with distortions and omissions, all of which serve to portray Israel as the aggressor and guilty party.

For example, the statement quotes an article by fringe Israeli columnist Gideon Levy:

The legitimate basis for the IDFís [Israeli army] operation was stripped away the moment it began. Itís no accident that nobody mentions the day before the attack on the Kerem Shalom Fort, when the IDF kidnapped two civilians, a doctor and his brother, from their home in Gaza. The difference between us and them? We kidnapped civilians and they captured a soldier, we are a state and they are a terror organization. How ridiculously pathetic when Amos Gilad [major general in Army Intelligence] sounds when he says that the capture of Shalit was "illegitimate and illegal," unlike when the IDF grabs civilians from their homes. (Haíaretz, July 3, 2006)

The alleged "kidnapping" of "civilians" by Israel was in fact reported by the Los Angeles Times on June 25, the day after it took place.

Israeli commandos seized two Palestinians suspected of being Hamas militants during a predawn operation Saturday that was the armyís first arrest raid in the Gaza Strip since Israelís withdrawal nearly a year ago. [....]

An Israeli spokeswoman said the two Palestinian men, arrested at a house near Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, were in the "final stages of planning a large-scale terror attack" in the coming days.

According to the report, Hamas denies the two brothers – Osama and Mustafa Muamar – are members, but clearly, Sabeel is invoking an incomplete journalistic narrative to buttress its condemnation of Israel.

The remainder of the document is filled with distortions and inconsistencies as well. For example:

Sabeel condemns Israel for arresting members of the Palestinian Authorityís "democratically elected government" and for bombing its buildings. Yet with their election victory in January, Hamas officials became responsible for the rocket attacks launched against Israel from within Gaza and for the kidnappings Hamas members have perpetrated. Sabeel is invoking Hamasí electoral legitimacy without acknowledging the role the group has played in tolerating, sanctioning and perpetrating acts of war against Israel.

Sabeel portrays Israelís efforts to prevent civilian casualties, such as the use of leaflets to warn of impending attacks, as collective punishment, without mentioning that Hamas targets civilians without warning, while hiding amongst civilians, guaranteeing civilian casualties.

Sabeel asserts that Israel actions are not self-defense but "tantamount to a defense of its occupation. Israel is occupying Palestinian land, denies Palestinians the right to resist and calls its aggression self-defense." In this accusation, Sabeel ignores two issues:

First, Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005 in an effort to achieve peace; this withdrawal was met with increased rocket attacks from Gaza, proving false Sabeelís assertions that Israeli concessions will necessarily achieve peace.

Secondly, Israel withdrew from Gaza after the Palestinian Authority failed to negotiate in good faith with Israel during the Camp David/Taba negotiations of 2000/2001, during which Israel offered to end the occupation.

Sabeel accuses Israel of "creating a frustrated and radicalized population" in Gaza because "all entries and exits out of the Gaza strip [are] closed ...." What Sabeel does not report, however, is that Israel only controls its own border with the Gaza Strip (just as every country controls its borders). Egypt and the Palestinians controls their shared border along the southern Gaza Strip. Israel, then, cannot be blamed for closing "all entries and exits."

Sabeel also calls for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, failing to acknowledge that Hamas, which currently controls the Palestinian Legislative Council, is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

• On Aug. 1, Sabeel issued another statement in response to the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah ("The Madness of War: Hizbollah and Israel"). This statement, too, is filled with distortions and half-truths.

For example, Sabeel condemns Israel for not turning over minefield maps to the Lebanese government in violation of mutual agreements that engineered Israelís 2000 withdrawal. This contradicts statements made by Timour Goksel, spokesman of the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon:

Goskel said that the Israeli army had given UNIFIL minefield maps covering 70,000 mines, most of which are anti-personnel devices laid along the borders.

"But even though this helps UNIFIL in demining its area of operation it still doesnít cover the area deep up to" the enclave of Jezzine, a region formerly controlled by the now-disbanded former Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia.

"Then we asked the Israelis, but the answer they gave was that they donít have reliable maps for the minefields left by the SLA. Nothing has changed since then," he said. (Jan. 15, 2001, Agence France Presse)

To be sure, injuries from land mines remain a substantial problem and it is regrettable that maps are not available for all of the mines in Lebanon; but contrary to Sabeel's allegation, Israel has cooperated with Lebanese and UN officials in their efforts to de-mine Lebanon since leaving the country in 2000. (Predictably, Sabeel does not mention the Arab violence that led to those land mines being placed in Lebanon in the first place, namely, the ongoing PLO terrorism launched agaist Israeli civilians from the Palestinian state-within-a-state in Lebanon.)

Sabeel condemns Israel for a so-called massacre in the village of Qana in the South of Lebanon on July 30, asserting that more than 60 people were killed, without acknowledging that Hezbollah routinely launches its rockets from civilian population centers. Moreover, it turns out that the number of dead is fewer than half the number reported.

Any number of civilian deaths is a tragedy. But Hezbollah's firing of rockets at civilian populations while hiding amongst civilian populations guarantees civilian deaths and is in violation of international law. Ultimately, the civilian deaths in Lebanon, not to mention in Israel, are Hezbollah's responsibility.

Sabeel condemns Israel for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees during by the 1948 war – a war that was started by Arab leaders who exhorted Palestinians to leave their homes to make way for the destruction of Israel – while ignoring the 800,000 refugees who were driven out of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East in the years after Israel obtained its independence.

Sabeel further asserts that Israel "carried out exchanges of prisoners with the refusal of three, in violation of mutual agreements," an apparent reference to Hezbollah demands that Israel release two terrorists -- Samir Kuntar, Yehia Skaff -- and an admitted spy -- Nasim Nisr. But there is no Israeli "violation" of agreements. Israel and Hezbollah agreed that Kuntar, who had brutally murdered a four-year-old Israeli girl and her father, would be released only in exchange for substantive information on the fate of MIA Israeli airman Rod Arad. That information was never provided.

Sabeel blames Israel for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre of 1982 which was, in fact, perpetrated by Christian Phalangists – not Israeli soldiers. Moreover, Sabeel fails to acknowledge that the day after this massacre between 200,000 and 400,000 Israelis took to the streets to protest then-defense minister Ariel Sharon's failure to anticipate and prevent the massacre.

Sabeel also asserts that "Palestinians and Arabs in general have accepted the reality of the existence of the state of Israel in the Middle East." This is not an acknowledgment of Israelís right to exist on the part of the Arab world. In fact, Sabeel and its leader, Rev. Naim Ateek, have on numerous occasions denied Israelís right to exist.

For example, in 1989 Rev. Ateek wrote the following:

Contrary to what some people may feel—and this will come as a shock to many others—the PLO has always proposed the ideal solution for Palestine: one united and democratic state for all Palestinians and Jews.

Sabeel reiterated this position in 2004, asserting in its "Jerusalem Document" that its "vision for the future" is "[o]ne state for two nations and three religions. "

And in June 2006, while speaking to an audience at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Columbus, Ohio, Rev. Ateek stated openly that Israel should not be allowed to maintain itself as a Jewish state.

Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem

On July 26, Rt. Rev. Riah H. Abu El-Assal, Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, issued a statement that began as follows:

For the past forty years we have been largely alone on this desert fighting a predator that not only has robbed us of all but a small piece of our historic homeland, but threatens the traditions and holy sites of Christianity.

While Bishop Riah suggests that the departure of Christians from the Holy Land is the consequence of multiple causes, he fails to point out that the mistreatment of Christians at the hands of the Muslim majority in Palestinian society is a huge factor behind their leaving. Even before the recent electoral victory experienced by Hamas, Arab Christians were in a precarious position vis a vis their Muslim neighbors in the disputed territories. Christians are a persecuted and badly tolerated minority in Muslim societies throughout the Middle East and life under the Palestinian Authority is no exception. Muslim converts to Christianity are subjected to violence. For more information, please see previous CAMERA analysis on this issue.

Riah also blames Israel for the undeniable suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza. This suffering would not have taken place if it were not for rocket attacks into Israeli towns that increased after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.  Hamas, not Israel, is morally responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians.

In reference to the Christian and Muslim populations in the disputed territories, Bishop Riah writes that "The strategy of ethnic cleansing on the part of the State of Israel continues." In fact, the Arab population has increased substantially in both the West Bank and Gaza since 1967.

Jerusalem Bishops

On July 7, 2006, The Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches in Jerusalem issued a statement entitled "Stop All the Violence, Pursue a Just Peace," which is a mixed bag of honesty and moral confusion.
 
The document does offer an explicit condemnation of violence against Israelis (which could use some more detail, such as a mention of the ongoing rocket attacks against Israel that have increased after Israelís withdrawal from Gaza). The document includes a heartfelt plea for a recognition of human dignity for everyone involved in the conflict. Moreover, the document calls for Israelís right to security to be recognized. This is likely due to the involvement of Mounib Younan, the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, who has previously acknowledged that Palestinian freedom is dependent on Israeli security.

Sadly, the document fails to acknowledge that with realization of national aspirations comes national responsibility. For example, the document condemns Israel for arresting Cabinet ministers and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. These arrests, however, were conducted after ongoing acts of war either perpetrated or condoned by the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Complaining about the arrests of officials who are ultimately responsible for attacks against Israel emanating from Gaza underscores the failure of Christian leaders in both the West and the Middle East to hold Arab and Palestinian leaders responsible for their actions.

Bishop Riah Abu Al-Assal of the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East defended the legitimacy of the January elections that put Hamas into power in the Palestinian Authority. On June 16, 2006, he said the following to a reporter from Center Aisle, an opinion journal published by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia:

You should recognize those elected by the best democratic process anywhere in the world, supervised by (former) President Carter and all those with him, and to try to negotiate end to violence (with Hamas). Otherwise stop talking about democracy and democratizing the Middle East. You canít talk about it and then not support it when it happens.

It is ironic that Bishop Riah lectures about democracy while simultaniously denying the responsibilities of duly elected leaders once they take office, for example, the responsibility to not allow the territory they control to be used as a base for rocket attacks, murders and kidnappings against a neighboring country.

Middle East Council of Churches

In a brief one-sided statement issued on June 29, the Middle East Council of Churches, made up of Christian churches located in Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East, condemns Israelís military action in Gaza without mentioning the kidnappings and rocket attacks that preceded it.

Discussion

Sadly, this is not the first time Christians in the Middle East have worked to legitimize falsehoods that encourage hostility against Jews. Bernard Lewis, in Semites And Anti-Semites (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), offers a detailed narrative about how Christian churches in the Middle East and the governments of the countries in which they were located worked to influence the Vatican as it contemplated removing the deicide charge (the notion that the Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Christ) from the theology of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. According to Lewis, the justification for the efforts of Arab churches to influence the Vatican was explained in an Arab League newsletter of Oct. 28, 1964:

"Certainly the Arab Christians have raised their voices against the attempt to alter the Holy Scriptures. As inhabitants of the cradle of Christianity the Arabs are in a better position to be able to judge the history of Christianity. That is why they permitted themselves to expose the attempts of the council." The following issue of the same newsletter (November 20, 1964) explained the strategy:

All Arab Ambassadors to foreign countries have received instructions to keep constant contact with the bishops and cardinals who participate in the [Second Vatican] Council in Rome and to enlighten them about the political background behind the Jewish schema debated by the Council. The Arab ambassadors will also explain the Arab point of view concerning this document to the Papal Secretariat and other authorities at the Vatican. This action of the Arab nations is to be interpreted as a good-will action, in order to maintain good relations.

The gentle threat in the last sentence was made clearer in more popular publications.

The spearhead of attack was of course the Arab Christian churches, and the one Arab government, that of Lebanon, which had some standing in the Christian world.

The effort, according to Lewis, was successful in that it prompted Vatican officials to tone down the resolution calling for the deicide charge to be expunged from Roman Catholic theology. Lewis writes:

According to the testimony of some Vatican observers, it was principally the influence of the representatives of the Near Eastern churches which caused some toning down of the draft resolution.

Christians in the United States who rely on Arab and Palestinian Christians for information about the Arab-Israeli conflict have an obligation to scrutinize the information offered to them.


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