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Robert Novak: Palestinian Christians Threatened In Aboud

“Palestinian Christians suffer, too”

April 17, 2006


ABOUD, West Bank — On Good Friday, I stood atop the remnant of the Santa Barbara shrine, destroyed by the Israeli army, and observed the picturesque village of Aboud. I could see properties confiscated to make room for the Israeli security wall, at the cost of centuries-old olive trees. Nearby are two enclosed, heavily guarded Israeli settlements, with four times Aboud’s Palestinian population.

Defenders of Israeli policy claimed my facts were wrong Feb. 16 when I wrote that the wall threatens Israel’s tiny Christian minority [sic. – Aboud is in the Palestinan territories, not Israel] and particularly Aboud’s Christian roots going back two millennia. Coming here for a firsthand look, I found the plight of the village’s Christians worse than I had reported.

But this is no Christian problem. During Easter week, I visited Palestinian territory in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Gaza as well as Aboud. Christians share the harsh fate of Palestinian Muslims in the wake of the disastrous second intifada. The head of Roman Catholic Palestinians, Latin Patriarch Michael Sabbah, told me: “The world has abandoned the Palestinians.”

If the world is uninterested in Palestinians generally, the plight of their co-religionists attracts the attention of Roman Catholics — with Aboud a striking example. Of the village’s 2,200 residents, 418 are Catholics and 375 Greek Orthodox. Thirty Catholic families have moved out, and more are expected to follow. With transportation to Israel for Palestinians cut off, some 100 residents of Aboud who used to work in Tel Aviv have nothing to do. Suhel Fawade, a 31-year-old Catholic, told me he has not had a job for seven years and consequently cannot marry to start his own family.

Foreign Ministry officials assert concern for their country’s Christians. But the Rev. Firas Aridah, the Catholic pastor here, worries his flock is losing its young generation. “They are after our water,” he told me, referring to Aboud supplying 20 percent of the West Bank’s ground water. The bitterness is intense. Israel’s 2001 destruction of 500 olive trees, in reaction to a settler’s murder, left scars. So did the army bomb planted in Santa Barbara’s shrine in 2002 because of suspicions that terrorists were meeting there.

Aboud is paradise compared with Gaza, where 1.2 million people crowd into one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Milk, flour and sugar are in short supply, with unemployment becoming universal. Undisciplined Palestinian militants have ineffectively fired rockets into Israel, which has responded with deadly daily artillery barrages.

Prominent Christians in Gaza told me their friends and relatives, denied access to and from the enclave, want to emigrate. Sami El-Youssef, financial vice president of Bethlehem University, said he believes there is a conscious Israeli policy of getting rid of the Christian minority, whose discomfiture is more politically embarrassing for Israel than Muslim distress.

Holy Week has been particularly difficult for Palestinian Christians. Professors at Bethlehem University were frustrated by government refusal to permit supervised student trips to the Sea of Galilee and Jerusalem. Throughout the West Bank, Christians were denied travel permits to march in Jerusalem’s Palm Sunday procession.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials asserted to me that Christians in the Holy Land suffer more from Muslims — a position echoed by the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of the Franciscans minding the Holy Land’s religious places. But I could not find another Catholic layman or prelate who complained of anti-Christian bias by Muslims.

Beyond cutting to pieces the promised Palestinian state, the security wall imposes an ugly scar on east Jerusalem and the West Bank. In Bethlehem, where the wall is a barbed wire fence at the Emmanuel Monastery, the sisters there and the brothers from Bethlehem University sadly parade in front of the wall, saying the rosary, once a week.

Israeli government officials argue the wall may not be pretty but saves lives. Retired army officers at the Economic Cooperation Foundation, a Tel Aviv think tank, believe the wall creates a climate of hatred. “I think it may be producing another generation of terrorists,” Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz told me. That is even worse than driving out the Holy Land’s remaining Christians.