BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- A recent wave of hate crimes targeting Palestinians and church property in Israel has prompted community leaders to express outrage at the culture of impunity and growing extremism which allow attacks to go unpunished.
On Friday, vandals spray-painted anti-Christian graffiti on a Jerusalem church, one of at least a dozen attacks in the past two months by Jewish extremists who have also set fire to mosques, slashed tires of Palestinian cars, and vandalized church property and religious cemeteries.
The pope's visit to the Holy Land on May 25 has increased attention surrounding the incidents, but Palestinian religious and community leaders say hate crimes targeting Palestinians have always existed, and are in some cases encouraged by Israeli government policy.
"The (Israeli) government is not doing enough; with all these attacks we didn't see any arrests. We fear there is a political cover-up from parties in Israel who don't want the incidents to be exploited," Rev. Jamal Khader, spokesman for the pope's visit to Palestine, told Ma'an.
Khader says that there is most likely no link between the increase in attacks and the pope's visit, but he worries that impunity for incidences of vandalism will eventually lead to more serious crimes against Palestinians.
"If they create this wave of hatred the next move will be attacking people. We should not wait until they translate into physical attacks against clergy and local Christians."
Bernard Sabella, an expert on Palestinian Christian history, says that historically, attacks on Christian institutions and clergy by extremist Jewish groups are not new, but still leave a "sour taste" for Palestinians.
"There are elements within the Israeli political structure that don't want to pursue the persecution of these people, or they don't think it is a high priority," Sabella told Ma'an.
"Unfortunately when these attacks take place we don't see the Israeli prime minister and other high officials taking action by visiting the sites of such attacks."
Sabella says that some extremist religious Jews see attacks against Christian institutions as a "mitzvah," or commandment, while others are deliberately responding to the pope's upcoming visit by demonstrating opposition to the presence of Christians in Israel.
"That leaves a really sour taste in our mouths and we feel that this is not fair. This is hitting the Christian community and telling the local Christians that they are not welcome."
Policy of expulsion
Palestinians stand next to graffiti reading in Hebrew "Arabs Out" on the
wall of a mosque in the northern Israeli town of Umm al-Faham on
April 18, 2014 (AFP/File Jack Guez)
On Sunday, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal condemned the wave of attacks and questioned the Israeli government's commitment to bringing the perpetrators to justice.
"Given that the vandals are largely unprosecuted, one must question the priority of the government to get to the bottom of the problem," he said.
To Hind Khoury, deputy chair of the board of Sabeel, an ecumenical center in Jerusalem for Palestinian Liberation Theology, hate attacks are part of a wider context of policies designed to put pressure on Palestinian communities in both Israel and the occupied West Bank.
"There is an accepted policy whereby a ruling power is allowed to pursue this policy of expulsion. This impunity has caused Israelis, who are veering more and more to the right, to become fundamentalists and to believe in their exclusive right to the land," she told Ma'an.
Racist attacks against Palestinians are simply another manifestation of this way of thinking, she says, with attacks specifically targeting Palestinian Christians a result of wider Israeli government policies aimed at separating Christians from their Muslim community members.
A recent bill by the Israeli Knesset legally distinguishing Christian Palestinians from Muslims, together with a recruitment push for Christians to join the army, is part of an effort "to separate and divide the Palestinian community, which is a diverse community of Muslims and Christians," Khoury says.
"They (Israelis) feel and are convinced that they have exclusive rights to the land and we are intruders. We feel very threatened in our existence in our country."
Rifat Kassis, general coordinator of the Palestinian Christian group Kairos, agrees that impunity for attacks on Palestinians is part of systemic racism within the Israeli state, but stresses that hate crimes only serve to strengthen the identity of the Palestinian community.
"We should see these attacks in the same context of settler violence against Palestinians or farmers, like uprooting their trees or setting fire to fields, and Israel fails all the same to bring these people to justice."
The recent concentration of attacks against churches in Jerusalem are not unique, Kassis says, but most likely a way of showing Palestinian Christians that they are not protected, and a way for Jewish extremists to say: "Don't think that we care for the pope."
"Palestinians are second or third class citizens in Israel, whether Christian or Muslim, and they know that the state is unable to protect them or provide them with equal chances," he adds.
The Israeli government should label the perpetrators of hate attacks as "terrorists," but unfortunately Israel fails to hold its Jewish citizens accountable for attacks against Palestinians, Kassis says.
Last week, the Roman Catholic church demanded that Israel act following the discovery of racist slogans daubed on a Vatican-owned property in Jerusalem.
Israeli police spokesperson Mickey Rosenfeld told Ma'an that a number of arrests have been made and there are currently a series of ongoing investigations.
Police units have also adapted their tactics to monitor sites of high risk, he said.
Despite these measures, only one person is likely to appear in court and be tried in connection to the recent spate of hate attacks.
"Price tag" attacks within Israel, in addition to attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians and their property in the occupied West Bank, were included in the US State Department's 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism, published April 30.