Friday, December 25, 2015

25-Dec-15: T'is the season to be very, very wary

Newsweek cover, March 2015
News reporting from Israel at this time of year often adopts a theme that Israelis, at least those Israelis like us who are tuned into the nuances of foreign reporting - find offensive. We think it reflects an infuriating, tone-deaf approach to centuries of fraught Christian/Jewish history.

Here where we live, today is a bright, sunny, chilly winter Friday - a delight to be outdoors, but cold when the sun sets. Classic Jerusalem.

Less bright is the violence in the news. Here's what Times of Israel is saying at this hour about the mood in the town that borders the southern flank of Israel's capital city. The headline reads "Palestinians beef up Bethlehem security amid fears of IS attack":
The Palestinian Authority was reportedly concerned that Salafists aligned with the Islamic State would attempt to perpetrate an attack in Bethlehem, as thousands of Christian pilgrims flocked to the West Bank city for the holidays. Seeking to thwart an attack, PA security forces placed 16 radical Islamists in administrative detention without charge, according to an Israel Radio report. Palestinian security was beefed up throughout the city in anticipation of an attempted shooting or bombing attack on tourists and Palestinian Christians, the report said. The Palestinian security forces were said to have received concrete threats of an attack by IS-linked militants... [Times of Israel, today]
Bethlehem's problems with the likes of ISIS are a small sub-set of a much larger catastrophe for Christians, unfolding right across the Middle East, '

Associated Press, in a seasonal report this morning, says devotees from around the world
descended on the biblical city of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations at the traditional birthplace of Jesus, trying to lift spirits on a holiday dampened by months of Israeli-Palestinian violence. [But] crowds were thin and hotel rooms were empty. While the annual festivities in Bethlehem’s Manger Square went on, other celebrations in the city were canceled or toned down. [AP via Al Arabiya, today]
It's downhill from there. Why are the celebrations "toned down"? How to explain empty hotel rooms? AP says it's because of the
months of Israeli-Palestinian violence... Israeli authorities said three Palestinian assailants were killed as they carried out or tried to carry out stabbing or car-ramming attacks against Israeli security personnel, and a fourth Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli troops, a Palestinian hospital official said. Two Israeli security guards and a soldier were wounded...
That's a disturbingly inaccurate view. The reality is there's been a vicious campaign underway here for the past three months. It's being explicitly urged on by the duplicitous "peace-seeking" Mahmoud Abbas regime in Ramallah and it's energized by calls for more stabbings, rammings and shootings by the Christianity-hating Islamists of Hamas. The result is hundreds of violent attacks on Israelis - and not only on Israeli security personnel - executed by Palestinian men, women and especially young boys and girls. That's not mentioned anywhere in AP's syndicated news report.

To the extent AP acknowledges any motive on the Arab side, it's lamely called "the result of nearly 50 years of military occupation". But in truth, when Abbas and his clique address their own people in the Arabic language, they base their case on more immediate and incendiary issues. As Jonathan Tobin wrote this week in Commentary Magazine:
Palestinian leaders like Abbas who will speak tomorrow of Jesus’s message and of a desire for “peace on earth” and “justice” have also played a principle role in inciting these bloody attacks. It is the same Abbas who spoke just a few months ago about the need for Palestinians to prevent “stinking Jewish feet” from polluting holy places sacred to all three monotheistic faiths and who praises those who try to butcher Jews as “martyrs” that will be allowed to grandstand on international television tomorrow. And it is also the same Abbas that refused multiple Israeli offers of peace and statehood, in spite of his claims that this is what he wants. But, of course, Abbas isn’t the only source of Palestinian leadership. Though they will not put on a Christmas show for the world, Hamas is also making its presence felt. Unlike Abbas’s Fatah Party, those Islamists make no pretense of respecting Christianity. But it is fear of competition from the rulers of Gaza that impels Abbas to continue to stoke the fires of conflict when not preening for the foreign press... ["The Real Palestinian Christmas Show", Jonathan S. Tobin, December 23, 2015]
Inadvertently perhaps, the AP piece helps alert readers see that Bethlehem's problems are something other than "months of Israeli-Palestinian violence".
As the festivities got underway, Miral Siriani, a 35-year-old publicist from Jerusalem, said she was relieved to get a break from three months of tension that has included numerous attacks in her city. “I feel safe in Bethlehem,” she said.
There's a reason the Jerusalem-based Arab lady feels safe in Bethlehem, and less so in the city she shares with us and our children. The Israeli military and police are arrayed right across our country right now, especially in Jerusalem, in order - not to suppress peaceful seasonal celebrations, not to interfere with ordinary people's lives, not to threaten random violence - to blunt the wave of terror attacks by Palestinian Arab zealots pumped up by the lethal rhetoric of their elites.

To put it more plainly, Bethlehem, an Arab town populated by Arabs and with no Jewish residents, is safe from "Israeli-Palestinian violence". Jerusalem, an Israeli city with a mixed Arab/Israeli population, is not. Underlining why it is not are the data we presented here a few days ago: "14-Dec-15: What do the Palestinian Arabs think?"

Local vendors, Manger Square, Bethlehem, this week
[Image Source]
AP could have said, but never does, that the security barrier - walls, fences, crossing points - has been dramatically effective in slowing down the rate of human bomb attacks. It has stopped the shootings by Tanzim gunmen who occupied the northern edge of Bethlehem in 2000-2002 and fired round the clock into southern Jerusalem and especially into the Gilo neighbourhood, bringing death and misery into lives on both sides. Still, we have gotten used to how agenda-driven reporters and their editors keep referring to Israel's Apartheid Wall. The reality is it has saved untold lives - Israeli, Arab, foreign. No one has yet been killed or injured by the security barrier, or by the road tunnel that runs beneath Bethlehem, protecting travelers from the sniper fire and fire-bombings that plagued the road it replaces.

Inside Bethlehem, as the report at the top of this post shows, things are more complicated. Arab-on-Arab violence gets much less media attention. But in a town that has undergone a dramatic demographic skewing since coming under the control of the Palestinian Authority in the early nineties, Christians know what they are up against:
Sobhy Makhoul, the chancellor of the Maronite Patriarchate in Jerusalem, told AsiaNews that the fire that broke out over the weekend at St Charbel Maronite Monastery in Bethlehem was deliberately set. “It was an act of arson, not a fire caused by an electrical problem, an act of sectarian vandalism by radical Muslims”... For the chancellor of the Maronite Patriarchate, “The attack is sectarian in nature. It is anti-Christian, like many other incidents across the Middle East. Extremist groups operate in the area, including some Hamas cells. There are also some loose cannons that give vent to their ideology." The St Charbel Maronite Convent is located in Wadi Maali, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Bethlehem... [Asia News, September 28, 2015]
The unmistakable trend in Bethlehem's population tells its own story.
  • Wikipedia's data quotes an American visitor describing the town as having a population of 3,000 to 4,000 in 1867; about 100 were Protestants, an insignificant 300 or so were Muslims and "the remainder belonging to the Latin and Greek Churches with a few Armenians". 
  • In 1948, when the Jordanian army began its 19-year occupation of the town, 85% of its inhabitants were Christian, mostly Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic. Muslims were 13%.
  • When Israel defeated the Jordanians in 1967 and conducted a census, it found 14,439 inhabitants, of whom Muslims were 54%
  • Under Israeli stewardship, Bethlehem grew to 22,000 by 1997
  • The most recent census in Bethlehem was conducted by the PA in 2006: it showed Bethlehem with a population of 25,000 to 29,000, with Muslims more than two-thirds of the total. 
And to remind the faithful that no matter how badly things are going, worse is almost certainly ahead:
Christianity faces "elimination" in the Middle East, the region where it began, the Archbishop of Canterbury will warn in his Christmas Day sermon. The Most Reverend Justin Welby will say so-called Islamic State is "igniting a trail of fear, violence, hatred and determined oppression". He will also brand IS as "a Herod of today" - a reference to the Biblical king at the time of Jesus's birth. The archbishop will deliver his sermon at Canterbury Cathedral... "They hate difference, whether it is Muslims who think differently, Yazidis or Christians, and because of them the Christians face elimination in the very region in which Christian faith began. This apocalypse is defined by themselves and heralded only by the angel of death." [BBC, today]
Nonetheless, let's take a moment to wish peace to all men, women and children.

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