Syndicated columnist Robert Novak once again proves himself incompetent to write about Christian Arabs, their status in Palestinian and Israeli societies, and Israeli policy toward them. His April 9 effort, headlined “Worse Than Apartheid?” in The Washington Post, and “Christians Fleeing faith’s birth place: Israeli policies, security wall fuel Palestinian feelings of hopelessness” in his home newspaper, The Chicago Sun-Times, epitomizes Novak’s problem. It continues his campaign of insinuating that Israeli policy drives Christian Arabs from the Holy Land. The insinuation is false, the column virtually fact-free.
Errors, Confusion and Dishonesty
1)In his lead, as in the rest of the column – following the pattern of his many previous commentaries on Israeli-Christian Arab issues – Novak functions as a Palestinian mouthpiece. He writes that “the Christian mayor of the tiny majority-Christian Palestinian village of Beit Sahour was angry last week as he drove me along the Israeli security wall. ‘They [Israelis] are taking our communal lands,’ he said, pointing to the massive Israeli settlement of Har Homa. ‘They don’t want us to live here. They want us to leave.’ ”
Development of the Har Homa neighborhood on the edge of southern Jerusalem was approved by the government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1996. Construction was delayed by court challenges. Eventually, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against both Jewish and Arab plaintiffs and the project went ahead – three-fourths of the roughly 460 acres was expropriated from Jewish land owners.
2)Novak claims that “life is hard for Palestinians, whose deaths because of conflict increased 272 percent in 2006 while Israeli casualties declined.”
No actual figures are given. “Deaths because of conflict” is not defined. In fact, the majority of Palestinian Arabs who died in violence in 2006 were a) combatants fighting Israeli counter-terrorist operations or b) Arabs killed by other Arabs in clashes between Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) and Fatah (Movement for the Liberation of Palestine), clan rivalries, or crime.
3)Novak repeats one of his – and Palestinian propaganda’s – old stand-bys, that “the territory [of the West Bank] has been so fragmented that a genuine Palestinian state and a ‘two-state solution’ seem increasingly difficult.”
Israel’s security barrier – the columnist admits it “has led to virtual elimination of suicide bombings and short-term peace” – does not “fragment” the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). The barrier’s route leaves a little less than eight percent of the area on the western, or Israeli side. The 92 percent on the eastern, or West Bank side, has territorial contiguity. It’s roughly nine miles wide at its narrowest point, the same as pre-1967 Israel at one of its narrowest points.
4)Novak wrote that “Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, at the university the same day I was, was given a tour of Jerusalem to see that the separation barrier in most places is a big, ugly and intimidating wall and not merely a fence.”
On this error, as in the contiguity claim in item 2), CAMERA has corrected Novak before. One more time: The security barrier, if finished as planned, will be more than 400 miles long. Yet only about five percent will be a wall, the rest will consist of fences, ditches, electronic detection devices, or some combination. Numerous gates along the route accommodate those crossing into or out of Israel on legitimate business.
5) The columnist charges that “Bethlehem University students cannot get to Jerusalem, a few minutes’ drive away, unless they sneak in illegally.” [This allegation was included in the Washington Post version, but was edited out of the Chicago Sun Times version..]
In fact, a major gate/checkpoint allows Bethlehem-area residents to reach the Israeli capital. If students sneak in illegally, it is only because they want to avoid going through the security checkpoint.
6)Novak reports that enrollment at Bethlehem University, “run by the Catholic Brothers of La Salle … is 70 percent Muslim,” but does not say, or perhaps does not know, why.
The school, like Bethlehem itself, once had Christian majorities. But from 15 percent of the Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1950, the Christian community has fallen to less than 2 percent, the decline accelerating with establishment of the Muslim-controlled Palestinian Authority in 1993 and the anti-Israel terrorism of the “al-Aqsa intifada” in 2000. Usually intimidated into silence, some Christians have been openly speaking out against the Muslim harassment and violence directed against Christians that is driving many out of Palestinian Authority areas.
“The Christian community of Bethlehem has been dwindling for at least a century because of economic and political hardships, but now it is hemorrhaging,” then mayor, Roman Catholic Hanna Nasser, told the London Sunday Times in 2003. Large-scale emigration of Christian Arabs from what would become Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip began in the late 1800s, according to Daphne Tsimhoni in her book, Christian Communities in Jerusalem and the West Bank Since 1948. But since Israel’s establishment in 1948, its Christian Arab population has grown nearly 400 percent, from 34,000 to almost 130,000; it is the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian minority.
7)Novak laments that current Bethlehem mayor, Victor Batarseh, “is on the Israeli blacklist because he contributed to the Popular Front for the Liber ation of Palestine (PFLP), which the State Department has designated a terrorist organization.”
The PFLP, one of the largest factions in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) after Fatah, staged 122 attacks, murdering 18 Israelis, in 1991 alone. In 2006, the PFLP criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for condemning a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, claimed responsibility for attacking Israeli border guards after a failed attempt to kidnap a soldier, and reportedly joined with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in terrorist attempts.
8)The columnist, acting like a stenographer, not an analyst, parrots the line that “the Britain-based organization Save the Children estimates that half the children in the occupied territories are psychologically traumatized.”
No doubt Save the Children, and Novak, could reach a similar estimate by talking to children in Israeli towns and villages within range of chronic rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, or in the northern third of Israel after last summer’s month-long barrage by Hezbollah rockets. This “factoid,” devoid of context or proof of methodology, is – like the column itself – without substance.