Syndicated columnist Robert Novak’s commentary on Palestinian Christians and the West Bank village of Aboud was an egregious example of revisionism. It featured false premises relying on repeated errors. The column appeared February 16 in his home newspaper, in the Chicago Sun-Times under the headline “Historic Christian towns losing ground in Holy Land” and in the Washington Post as “Christian Victims of Israel’s Wall,” among other publications.
Five major errors are listed below, followed by facts of the matter. Those facts regarding the security barrier were supplied by Israeli Ministry of Defense officials responsible for the barrier, via the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C.
1) Novak alleges that “Israeli policy” promises “further reduction in [Christian Arabs’] 1.7 percent share of Israel’s population.” Israel’s Christian Arabs comprise 2.1 percent of the country’s 2005 population of 6.9 million. Their numbers have grown by at least 270 percent since Israel’s founding. (This figure includes Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Christians, but not Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union.) Israel is the only place in the Middle East, including the area under jurisdiction of the
Palestinian Authority, in which the Christian Arab population has not been declining for decades.
Novak may confuse statistics for Israel and the PA. Prof. Justus Reid Weiner notes in “Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society,” published by The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the Christian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has plunged [from about 20 percent after World War II] to less than 1.7 percent now. Weiner suggests that the “beleaguered plight” of Christian Arabs remaining in the PA is attributable in part “to the adoption of Muslim religious law in the constitution of the Palestinian Authority.” Further note the February 23 Jerusalem Post Magazine article, “Christians Under Cover.”
2) Novak claims that the village of Aboud’s residents “are being deprived of their water supply by the new [security barrier] construction” and “the new barrier will … take over the aquifer that supplies one-fifth of the West Bank’s water supply.” Israeli officials responsible for the barrier’s route say it does not affect Aboud’s water supply. They note that if a well is on the western (Israeli) side of the fence, it’s their obligation to supply the village, installing new water lines if necessary to ensure continuing access. A local reservoir, built by the Israeli Water Authority for both nearby Jewish settlements and Aboud, should have been encompassed by the barrier for security reasons, but was left outside (on the eastern side) to lessen the impact on Aboud. As for the underground aquifer in the Samarian Mountains, it is not relevant to the barrier’s route. Israel and the PA have a continuing agreement regarding water, sewage, contamination and related matters that has been adhered to “meticulously” even during the “Al Aqsa intifada.” The barrier does not reduce supplies available to either side.
3) Novak charges that “the new barrier will confiscate 39 percent of the village’s olive fields.” Israeli officials say they know of no basis for that figure. According to one, “olive trees on the western, or Israeli side were replanted on the Palestinian side.” Other officials noted that the barrier’s route will affect four small areas of Aboud’s farmland — and in those cases a one-time compensation payment will be made, plus annual usage fees. The land is not being expropriated but used temporarily, so long as the security barrier is needed to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorism. Access will be provided through agricultural gates to land west of the barrier or through the Ofarim crossing 24 hours a day.
4) The columnist alleges that “twelve kilometers of the barrier will be built on Aboud’s land, and the villages of Al-Lubban and Rantis also will lose more territory.” Israel officials note that Aboud residents have not petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court regarding the barrier, perhaps because the land in question is not private property but state land, as it was under Jordanian, British and Turkish rule. No private property was or is being taken from Aboud. Neither
will Al-Lubban or Rantis “lose more territory.” And “twelve kilometers [approximately seven miles] of the barrier” could not “be built on Aboud’s land” in any case — the small village does not extend that far.
5) Novak claims that “the Israeli settlements of Beit Arye and Ofarim were built on land taken from residents of Aboud.” Beit Arye and Ofarim were constructed on state land years before the security barrier. Residents of the now-merged Beit Arye-Ofarim, not Aboud, have petition the Israeli High Court of Justice about the barrier — they claim that the route, intended to minimize the impact on Aboud, leaves the fence too close to their homes.
The allegation that “Israeli policy has contributed to heavy migration of Christian Arabs” amounts to unfounded historical revisionism. Evidence to the contrary includes:
A) “‘Islamic mafia’ accused of persecuting Holy Land Christians,” in London’s Daily Telegraph, Sept. 9, 2005. It reports that “Christians in the Holy Land have handed a dossier detailing incidents of violence and intimidation by Muslim extremists to Church leaders in Jerusalem …. The dossier includes 93 alleged incidents of abuse by an ‘Islamic fundamentalist mafia’ against Palestinian Christians, who accused the Palestinian Authority of doing nothing to stop the attacks. The dossier also includes a list of 140 cases of apparent land theft, in which Christians in the West Bank were allegedly forced off their land by gangs backed by corrupt judicial officials.”
B) A Dec. 23, 2003 United Press International feature stating that “year after year, bishops of the 15 Christian denominations in the Holy Land plead with their flocks not to go away. But they do move. Two generations ago, 15 percent of the Palestinians were Christians, chiefly Greek Orthodox. Now their share has dwindled down to two percent [no more than 50,000] …. By contrast, 200,000 Palestinian Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants have moved to the Americas, Australia, Europe or other Middle Eastern countries ….”
C) Novak notes heightened concern about Palestinian Christians since the January 25 election victory of Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement). But the problem pre-dates Hamas’ legislative win. The Israel Defense Forces reported on Dec. 26, 2002 that “documents captured during operation ‘Defensive Shield’ reveal that in the last couple of years the residents of Bethlehem, especially members of the Christian faith, have had to suffer with violence directed against them by the armed militias, bandits, and thugs, with members of Fatah taking an active role.”
D) Under Jordanian occupation of the West Bank, the number of Christians in Jerusalem declined from 25,000 in 1949 to less than 13,000 in 1967.
E) Muslim abrasion of Christian populations is a centuries-old process, as documented in The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam, by Bat Ye’or, 1996, Associated Universities Press.
Opinion columns not based on facts are misleading. Novak’s February 16 c olumn on Christian Arabs and the village of Aboud was misleading at best, anti-Israel propaganda at worst.