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New identity law raises fears of Israeli effort to divide Christians
Published Wednesday 26/02/2014 (updated) 04/03/2014 12:04
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Palestinian priest Father Shomali leads an open air mass on church lands
threatened with confiscation by Israeli authorities for the separation wall
on April 6, 2012 (AFP/Musa al Shaer)

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- A new law to create a separate "Christian" nationality for Palestinian citizens of Israel successfully passed through the Knesset on Monday with more than three-quarters of votes in favor.

The bill, which creates a distinction from the existing "Arab" nationality, has raised fears among many Palestinians that a renewed push is underway by the state to divide their society along religious lines.

The law's supporters have made clear that the new measure is not merely a legal formality, but instead intends to de-emphasize the Arab identity of Christians by racializing and politicizing existing religious distinctions.

"It's a historic and important step that could balance the State of Israel and connect us to the Christians, and I am careful not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs," sponsor Likud MK Yariv Levin said in January, adding that Christians are "our natural allies," unlike Muslims "who want to destroy the state from within."

On Wednesday, PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi condemned the law, calling it an effort to transform the occupation into "an outright religious confrontation," and stressing that Israel is adopting a "policy of the classification of its citizens based on religion or ethnicity" as part of a larger system of "apartheid."

A Knesset committee is even looking into instituting compulsory army service for Israel's 120,000 Palestinian Christians, a proposal which has raised ire among both Muslims and Christians citizens, who are currently exempted.

But Palestinian society is not taking these efforts lying down.

One member of the Knesset has even called upon the pope to intervene. Civil society groups on both sides of the Green Line, meanwhile, are mobilizing a campaign of local and global resistance to what they fear is a a larger campaign to tear their religiously diverse society apart.

'Divide and rule strategy'

"We will do everything in our power to stop this law," says Rifat Kassis, head of the Palestinian-Christian activist group Kairos.

"We are against it. All informed Christians are against it," he says, highlighting that the vast majority of Christians in Israel as well as the 50,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank -- where he is based -- oppose the measure.

"Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian community ... We are Palestinians just like any other."

While Kassis acknowledges that some Christian Palestinians inside Israel do support the law, he insists they are a tiny minority.

"We should respect differences in opinion, but (the boycott movement) is supported by (the) vast majority of Christians" in both the West Bank and Israel, he explains.

"A minority thinks differently, but this phenomenon is being encouraged by the state itself."

In Kassis' view, the law reflects the "apartheid nature" of the Israeli state and its inability to "deal with its citizens as citizens" but instead as a collection of religious groups.

The roots of the law, Kassis argues, are in the "the British divide and rule strategies," referring to how British colonizers seized upon religious differences in order to enlist locals in the colonial project.

The colonizers often favored certain groups -- particularly Christians -- and emphasized their links to European civilization. This denial of indigenous identity to Christian Arabs was intended to sever their connections to their neighbors and weaken Palestinian society and resistance.

A Baladna poster reads in Arabic, "Hand in hand,
we will bring down the law of conscription"

'A methodical plan since 1948'

Many view these efforts through a similar lens, stressing that Israeli authorities have historically sought to manipulate and politicize cultural or religious divisions to weaken the Palestinian national movement.

Nidaa Nassar, a project coordinator for a Palestinian youth organization in Israel called Baladna, argues that the moves are "not a marginal phenomenon, but a methodical plan that has been implemented gradually since 1948."

"These are part of a politicized project to divide us, because if we become small groups, we we will stop sharing our national identity," she says.

Israeli government institutions "try to find partners in order to find ways to collaborate with Palestinians," in the process exploiting the "weak points" in Palestinian society in Israel for political purposes.

Nassar argues that sectarianism -- along religious, tribal, regional, and other lines -- exists, but it becomes a much more serious issue when "recruited for political goals."

In December, Baladna launched a campaign against sectarianism in all its manifestations, holding workshops in Palestinian communities across Israel and launching an awareness campaign.

One video for the campaign features a doctor diagnosing a patient with the "disease" of sectarianism.

"The base of our work is raising national identity, bringing together different groups and ensuring strength of national identity," Nassar explains.

'Pure propaganda'

In recent years, Israeli authorities have increasingly sought to promote Palestinian enlistment in the military. Although these efforts have been met with widespread public rejection, some Christians and Muslims have signed up.

Army Maj. Shadi Rahal told the Associated Press last year that 208 Muslims and 137 Christians had signed up voluntarily.

Israeli military advertisements directed toward Palestinian Christians in particular, meanwhile, have increased.

One such video, released in January, focuses on a young Christian woman who voluntarily signed up for the military. In fluent Arabic, both Monalisa Abda and her mother speak with pride about her decision to serve her country, and encourage others to enlist.

Facebook users reacted in anger, and many mocked the upbeat tone of a video about signing up to fight in the army.

Elias Hawila, a Palestinian medical student with Israeli citizenship from Haifa, considers the video "pure propaganda."

"One does not know whether to laugh at the absurdity of the situation or be sad that she and her mother are being used in this way,” he explains, adding: "Her mother sounds like she is trying to sell some sort of laundry detergent, not trying to convince parents to send their own children to use violence against their own people!"

From a Christian background himself, Hawila calls the effort to promote conscription a "ludicrous" idea, explaining that he "strongly objects to the government's false notion of integrating the Christian population."

"Palestinians were always made up from different religions and all are an integral part of Palestinian society," he adds.

'We must all work together to fight'

The possibility of compulsory recruitment of Christians into the Israeli army raises the specter of the Druze and the process of thorough de-Arabization the community has experienced since Israel’s founding. The Druze are a religious minority for whom compulsory military service was instituted in 1957.

Generations of youths in the Druze community have fought for Israel against Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. Today, few Druze identify as Arab, and even fewer as Palestinian, even though they share language, customs, and history with their Arab neighbors.

"There is a fear that the experience of the Druze will be repeated with Christians through the implementation of forced conscription," Nassar of Baladna explains. Her organization supports a growing movement among Druze youth to refuse conscription, but the movement still faces an uphill battle within the community.

Nassar does not believe that Israeli authorities will succeed this time around, however, stressing that Palestinians are more "aware and organized" than they used to be.

"They say it's a Druze issue, but it's not. It's not a Christian issue. These are national issues," she stresses.

"We must all work together to fight."
1 ) Colin Wright / USA
26/02/2014 19:50
'...On Wednesday, PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi condemned the law...' Ashrawi actually doesn't even need to say anything to condemn the law. She is, as the article says, a member of the PLO's executive committee. She is also a Christian.

2 ) Johnny benson / USA
26/02/2014 19:55
Great idea ...should have been long ago....Christian Arabs have no future in a Muslim community in today's radical Islamists outlook...look at what just happened

3 ) micth / usa
26/02/2014 20:18
" divide their society along religious lines, " is this for real? the entire arab world divides themselves from everyone by saying they are muslim.

4 ) Jew / Christian
26/02/2014 20:54
There are no palestinians in Israel. There are Arab Israelis living in Israel, and from those Arabs some are Christians while majority are Muslim. Christian Israelis are natural part and base of Israeli populous - Christianity itself started in Israel more than 2000 years ago. Israel is only country in the Middle East where Christian population is growing and prospering. In all neighboring countries Christians are prosecuted and persecuted and forced to flee. There only hope is Usrael.

5 ) deb / UK
26/02/2014 22:45
@4 I met some Arab women from Israel and when I called them Israeli Arabs they corrected me and said they are Palestinian and not to call them Israeli Arabs. I didn't even think to ask them their religion that didn't seem important.

6 ) Father Ignatius / Ireland
26/02/2014 22:49
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has demanded that Christians in a Syrian city it controls pay a levy in gold and curb displays of their faith in return for protection, Its directive to Christians in the eastern city of Raqqa is the latest evidence of the group's ambition to establish a state in Syria founded on radical Islamist principles .ISIL said it would ensure Christians' safety in exchange for the levy and restrictions to their faith, citing the Islamic legal precept of 'dhimma'.

7 ) Chimo / USA
26/02/2014 23:13
Looks like your in the minority today Colin. When you have 24 hr news outlets showing the wholesale slaughter of Christians outside of their church's in Iraq

8 ) Chimo / USA
26/02/2014 23:17
Hit the send button too early. It is only in Israel that Christians can go to and from work and raise their kids in a pluralistic society and have no fear of a suicide bomber blowing them all up on a Sunday morning. Christian communities are being wiped out in the Muslim middle east by radical Islamic jihadists, who are also slaughtering each other wholesale. So this article is quite laughable in it's intent

9 ) Tibi / Tubas
26/02/2014 23:34
1- The "society" of Israel is already clearly divided along religious lines, where Israeli Muslims largely support a holy war, that accepts murdering Jews, including women and children, as the Itamar murder survey showed, while 2- Israeli Christians have never been suicide-bombers, nor rocket-launchers, so the bill simply recognizes, rather than "creates a distinction within the Arab nationality", and 3- Israeli Christians need not continue paying the price for Muslim's bad behavior !!!

10 ) Colin Wright / USA
26/02/2014 23:47
To Jew #4: '...Christian Israelis are natural part and base of Israeli populous - Christianity itself started in Israel more than 2000 years ago. Israel is only country in the Middle East where Christian population is growing and prospering. In all neighboring countries Christians are prosecuted and persecuted and forced to flee. There only hope is Usrael.' 'Usrael' takes in a lot of Christian refugees, does it? Care to supply us with the figures?

11 ) Colin Wright / USA
26/02/2014 23:49
To micth #3: '...the entire arab world divides themselves from everyone by saying they are muslim.' No...YOU divide yourself from them by saying 'they' are Muslim. Please try to distinguish between the evil that is within you and the evil that is out there. It's an important first step.

12 ) Colin Wright / USA
26/02/2014 23:52
Notice how -- after sixty years of abusing both communities with remarkable impartiality -- the Zionists are all happily jumping on the bandwagon of 'Christians are different from Arabs.' I for one have considerable considerable doubts as to their sincerity. Actually, scratch that. I am completely certain as to just how sincere they are. It's really amazing: the sheer devotion Zionists have to lying at all times. It's practically a point of principle with them.

13 ) Helena / Greece
27/02/2014 16:58
@6 That tactic of blackmail, theft and living as ''dhimmi'', will sound very familiar to the 800,000 Jews who have been expelled from Islamic countries. The 800,000 Jews that have been absorbed by the State of Israel, and housed and educated. So that they may flourish and not stagnate like abandoned Arab refugees.

14 ) Mel’ s Mom / USA
27/02/2014 17:11
I do hope the Israelis ask the Pope, what has happened in Middle Eastern countries to Christians who can no longer continue to live in the Middle East: we all lose something immensely and irreplaceably precious when such a rich tradition – dating back 2,000 years – begins to disappear. It comprises a rich panoply of church life, including the Antiochian, Greek, Coptic, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Churches, the Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean and Roman Catholic Churches.

15 ) Mel / USA
27/02/2014 17:36
"...because if we become small groups, we we will stop sharing our national identity...".BRAVO! To lessen the NATIONAL strength,unity,identity of those one seeks to conquer,subjugate & murder,DIVIDE &RULE is imperative. Very colonial! Nazi's did it with Jews,setting different sects on each other,to manipulate.Europe did it in Africa,M/E. But'white' occupiers don't have favorites.They just have("lesser")human TOOLS.But all are scheduled for pain&death anyway.DON'T BE DIVIDED ANY MORE,Palestine!!

16 ) Mel / USA
27/02/2014 17:55
p.s. The only option given to Arab Israeli's is if they accept dominance by militarist,occupying Israel,by wearing Jewish military uniform,when not wearing western clothes.Is that the ONLY option Israel offers?Western clothes off duty. BUT you must don our 'Jewish-state' uniform'Hijab' for WORK,to identify your faith?And # 14: Palestine is CIVILIAN,political,pluralistic,unconditionally! You're talking about Israel's tolerance of only RELIGIOUS figures/institutions that hold TOKEN power!

17 ) Maureen / Australia
27/02/2014 18:55
#6 The US led invasion of Iraq (the Bush's 'holy war') has caused hatred and suspician against M.E. Christians.

18 ) Colin Wright / USA
27/02/2014 20:17
To Chimo #7: 'Looks like your in the minority today Colin. When you have 24 hr news outlets showing the wholesale slaughter of Christians outside of their church's in Iraq' Jeepers. You mean Israel is even more functional than Iraq? That's a pretty high bar you're setting yourself there, buddy. You sure you can get over it?

19 ) Tom / USA
27/02/2014 20:35
Christian is not a nationality. This new policy shines a bright light on just how bogus the zionist parsing of human beings really is.

20 ) ear / US
28/02/2014 01:33
Bethehem was 80% Chr!st!an. Now !t's 20%. Because of the harsh occupat!on. Not because of Mus1!ms.

21 ) Sean / scotland
02/03/2014 22:07
This defies parody.The arrogance that at the stoke of a pen a new nationality is created.It sounds more like "Monty Python".Tell us where is our homeland then,perhaps it's where we Christians came from & where might that be I wonder? sorry no room in the inn try the stable. Likud MK Yariv Levin said in January, that Christians are "our natural allies,"!! do tell what are the arabic words for "Inquisition, Ghetto, Pogrom, or Special treatment". Good Christian European words. Natural allies Oh yer
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