Inflammatory Bethlehem Column in Wall Street Journal

In late December every year the media carries articles or Op-Eds reworking “the Bethlehem Formula” where “Israel’s critics describe the impact of Israeli security measures on the city’s current residents without describing why these measures are in place.” Key items usually ignored include the campaign of violence that prompted Israeli security measures in the first place, including construction of the security barrier, the number of suicide attacks emanating from Bethlehem, and the intimidation of Christians in Palestinian society at the hands of the Muslim majority.

This year is no different, with Israel-bashing Christmas columns appearing in an array of newspapers and magazines. One of the most disturbing, perhaps, is the muddled and distorted Dec. 24th Op-Ed by Kenneth Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek and formerly the magazine’s religion editor, which was published on the generally well-vetted Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal. “The Plight of Bethlehem,” is so filled with falsehoods and far-fetched claims, one wonders whether the regular Op-Ed editors were on vacation.

Woodward, who admits in his column that he hasn’t actually been to Bethlehem in seven years, begins by claiming Israel’s security measures “make it impossible” for Christians to visit their holy shrines. But this is clearly false according to Lt.-Col. Kamil Wahabee, commander of the IDF’s Bethlehem District Coordinating Office. The Israeli government lifted a general prohibition on Israeli civilians visiting the West Bank without a permit in order to allow Israeli Arabs to visit family in the West Bank over the holiday season. And eight thousand Christians from Bethlehem alone have been granted travel permits, while Israel will allow 500 Christians from the Gaza Strip to enter Israel and the West Bank for up to one month during the Christmas season. (AP, “Israel Eases Bethlehem Christmas Travel ,” Dec. 18, 2007)

True to formula, Woodward does not bother to discuss the reason security measures are in place. In fact, he only mentions Israel’s security concerns in order to dismiss them with an artificial and illogical cause and effect:

Israel, of course, must protect its security. But it cannot blame the Christians’ dire circumstances on the second intifada: Muslims are suffering just as much as the tiny Christian minority.

The security barrier was built as a result of the deadly suicide bombings and shooting attacks by various terrorist groups in the West Bank during the second Palestinian intifada. In the just-over two years between December 2001 and February 2004, 16 suicide bombings were planned, dispatched from or carried out by operatives in the Bethlehem area alone. Over 80 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded in those attacks–many of them bus bombings that claimed dozens of lives in nearby Jerusalem. (See, for example: Suicide bombing terrorism during the current Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.)

Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade all operated from Bethlehem. Since one of their primary targets was Jerusalem, this is hardly surprising, since as Woodard himself points out, “a mere nine kilometers separates Bethlehem” from Jerusalem.

Indeed, a few years ago a Hamas suicide-bomb factory was even discovered near Manger Square, just yards from the Church of the Nativity compound (Washington Post, May 5, 2002; Associated Press, May 4, 2002 ). And since the erection of the barrier, there has been a drastic reduction (90%) in the number of suicide bombings emanating from the Bethlehem area.

Was Woodward unaware of these facts – or did he just choose to leave them out? Either way, the omission underscores the ill-founded nature of his charges.

In the first years of the Second intifada, there were also hundreds of shooting attacks from Beit Jala into the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo by Palestinian Muslims who had taken over the homes of Christian residents of the village to launch their attacks. Only after Israel stepped up its security measures in that area, did the shooting stop.

Those Christians who tried to stop the Muslim gunmen from using their property to fire into Gilo later reported that they had been beaten or threatened by the gunmen. ( Jerusalem Post, “Away From the Manger – a Christian-Muslim Divide,” Oct.21, 2005) It is this sort of persecution of Christians by Palestinian Muslims that is the primary cause for Christian flight – an inconvenient truth that does not fit into Woodward’s holiday diatribe.

Also ignored by Woodward is why Muslim gunmen choose to attack Israel from Christian – or formerly Christian towns – like Bethlehem or Beit Jala, when nearby Muslim towns would serve just as well. There are two main reasons: First, because any Israeli effort to stop the attacks is sure to provoke ill-informed screeds like Woodward’s, especially if Israel damages a church by mistake. And two, because when peaceful Christian residents flee their homes due to the resulting hostilities, Muslim families can move in and occupy their homes and land.

In fact, these sorts of land grabs and attacks on Christians by Muslims grew so bad that several of Bethlehem’s Christian families appealed to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Vatican Church leaders and European governments, all of whom ignored the complaints. The Jerusalem Post‘s Palestinian affairs correspondent, Khaled Abu Toameh, interviewed the families who say that “many Christians have long been afraid to complain in public about the campaign of intimidation for fear of retaliation by their Muslim neighbors and being branded ‘collaborators’ with Israel.” (“Bethlehem Christians Fear Neighbors,” Jerusalem Post, Jan. 25, 2007)

For example, Abu Toameh reports the case of Fuad and Georgette Lama who discovered their six dunam property in Bethlehem had been seized by Muslims from a nearby village. When they turned to PA security officers to help them recover their land, the officers took money from them and then decided to keep the land for themselves, destroying the olive trees and subdividing the land for sale. According to Abu Toameh:

“Unfortunately Christian leaders and spokesmen are afraid to talk about the problems we are facing [the Lamas said]. We know of three other Christian families – Salameh, Kawwas and Asfour – whose lands were also illegally seized by Muslims.”

A Christian businessman who asked not to be identified said the conditions of Christians in Bethlehem and its surroundings had deteriorated ever since the ar ea was handed over to the PA in 1995.

“Every day we hear of another Christian family that has immigrated to the US Canada or Latin America he said. The Christians today make up less than 15 percent of the population.

People are running away because the Palestinian government isn’t doing anything to protect them and their property against Muslim thugs. Of course not all the Muslims are responsible but there is a general feeling that Christians have become easy prey.”

Aaron Klein of World Net Daily similarly reports that Christian leaders and residents say “they face an atmosphere of regular hostility” with “Palestinian armed groups stir[ring] tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets,” attacks on Christian homes, and “Christian shopkeepers’ stores ransacked.” He gives the example of how Samir Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem Christian leader and owner of the Beit Sahour-based private al-Mahd TV station was targeted by Islamic gangs, “his home was firebombed after he returned from a trip abroad during which he gave public speeches outlining the plight of Bethlehem’s Christian population.” (“Silent Fright,” World Net Daily, Dec. 23, 2007) 

But none of this is mentioned in Woodward’s column. Instead, there are questionable statistics and ludicrous claims of the security barrier severing “water resources that served the region since Roman Times” (Is there no running water in Bethlehem? Do Bethlehem residents still obtain their water in buckets from wells, access to which is cut off by the barrier?) and Israeli construction on Har Homa, which he describes as “a verdant Jewish settlement on a hillside that was formerly Christian land.” In fact, the vast majority of land upon which Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, was built was Jewish-owned, not Christian or Muslim owned.

The real question is why did the Wall Street Journal allow Woodward’s sloppy anti-Israel rant to serve as its holiday column?

(For further background on the status of Christians in the Middle East see also “New York Times Omits Major Reason Christians are Leaving Bethlehem” and “Reuters Fails to Root Out Facts on Palestinian Christians“. )


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