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Concern as Israel tries to woo Palestinian Christians
Published Thursday 22/05/2014 (updated) 23/05/2014 22:56
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Palestinian Christians attend an Arabic mass lead by Parish
priest, Father Abdou in the Saint Joseph's Latin Parish in
the Mediterranean coastal city of Haifa, northern Israel, on
May 18, 2014.(AFP/File Jack Guez)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- In a region marked by sectarian division, Israel is trying to bring its Christian Palestinian population on side in a move aimed at splitting them from their Muslim compatriots, experts say.

This Israeli charm offensive has recently led to the army calling for the first time on Arab Christians to sign up for military service, and in a newly-passed law which formalizes a distinction between Christian Palestinians and Muslims.

"We and the Christians have a lot in common," MP Yariv Levin said at the time.

"They're our natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within," said Levin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party which sponsored the bill.

It is a discourse in keeping with the neo-conservative world view of a "clash of civilizations" between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam which has been embraced by Netanyahu - a close ally of both the US Republican right and the Zionist evangelicals.

It is not the first time Israel has tried to align itself with its "natural allies" in the predominantly Muslim Middle East. It did so in Lebanon in the 1980s by backing the Christian Phalangist militia and its ally the South Lebanon Army against their Muslim opponents.

"There is indeed a significant decline in the condition of the Christians in the Middle East," said professor Gabriel Ben-Dor, head of national security studies at Haifa University.

"In Israel, this is perceived as the moment to improve the standing of the Christian minority in Israel," he explained, saying it would also "significantly improve" Israel’s international standing.

But ahead of a key visit to the Holy Land by Pope Francis which begins on Saturday, this apparent strategy of divide and rule has Israel's Palestinian community worried.

'They are Palestinians'

Israel's Palestinian population -- descendents of some 160,000 Palestinians who remained after Israel was established in 1948 -- today numbers 1.4 million, 130,000 of whom are Christians.

Military service is not compulsory for Israel's Palestinians, except for the tiny Druze community, and only around 100 Christians volunteer for service each year, army figures show.

But last month, Israel said it would start sending enlistment papers to all Christian Arabs of military service age, angering Palestinian MKs who accused the government of seeking to divide Christians from Muslims.

The reaction of the Christian Churches was not slow in coming.

In Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel, the Greek Orthodox Church sacked one of its priests after he publicly encouraged young Christians to join the army to understand "the importance of serving and getting involved in the country in which they live and which protects them."

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which represents the Roman Catholic Church, protested against the army's decision to seek a tenfold increase in the number of Christian recruits annually.

"The issue is that these Christians are Palestinian," said Michel Sabbah, patriarch between 1988-2008 and the first Palestinian to hold the post for centuries.

"If you accept yourself as Palestinian, you must be logical with yourself -- you don't go into an army which maintains occupation on Palestinians, or kills Palestinians.

"You have to be a good citizen inside the state of Israel, but being a good citizen does not imply that you are ordered to kill your brothers who are Palestinians," he said.

Playing the sectarian card

Opponents accuse nationalist right-wing elements within Netanyahu's coalition of playing the "sectarianism" card and seeking to create a divide between Christians and Muslims.

"I don't think that Israel is serious about integrating Arab Christians in Israeli society on the basis of full, equal-rights citizens. This is a clear attempt to split the Arab-Palestinian minority in Israel," said political analyst Wadie Abu Nasser.

"If Israel is serious, why does discrimination continue vis-a-vis the Druze who serve in the army? And why it doesn't allow Palestinian refugees of Christian background to come back?" said Abu Nasser, a former spokesman for the Latin Patriarchate.

If the strategy succeeds, it will only be "in a very limited way," he said.

"Israel's strategic mistake is not to reply to regional instability in positive ways.

"Making peace with the Palestinians and offering full equality to all of its citizens are the best guarantees for Israel's future in the region."
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1 ) JoeFattal / USA
22/05/2014 17:07
Now before the Pope arrives. The Jewish extremists think different. They want both Christians and Muslims out. And tell you the truth I believe they both in it Israel and the Jewish extremists.

2 ) Colin Wright / USA
22/05/2014 20:24
It's a bit late in the day for this. One is reminded of the Confederate government agreeing to allow blacks to enlist in their army -- in April 1865.

3 ) Mel / USA
22/05/2014 21:31
LOL!HaHa! Levin is a lunatic! "lot in common"? "natural allies"? Pleeeeeez! From a colonial,white-supremacist,"chosen"mindset,he's right!After all, Evanzealical Zionists only tolerate AIPAC Jews because of the "rapture" & Jewish Zionists tolerate Rapurites while they PAY UP the CUFI cash! The "Rapture"is more important to those end-timers than Israeli Nazis calling Mary a'monkey'& Jesus a 'son of a bitch'?Before Zionism in Palestine,it was the Holy Land for ALL.Not a Jewish Balkan"Stan".

4 ) Confused / USA
24/05/2014 02:59
Christians and Muslims in Israel complain that Jews have priority in job applications and university enrollment after military service. Now Christians have a chance at an equal playing field. If that works, perhaps Israeli Muslims will be next. But that must be wrong, because non-compromise policies such as keeping Palestinians in refugee camps for 60 years is clearly the path to success. Or is it?

5 ) Alana Turing (1) / UK
24/05/2014 18:23
The issue is complex & we need to look at the problem in terms of the conventions of war & occupation, as the issue underpinning this argument is that currently, Israel is in a state of war with Palestine (as opposed to peace). Some citizens of Israel identify themselves as belonging collectively to ‘Palestine’ (here defined as an ideological state which encompasses historical narrative, ethnicity, current struggle, etc). Israel has chosen (in relation to Military Service & the subsequent (cont)

6 ) Alana Turing (2) / UK
24/05/2014 18:24
privileges ensuing from this) to define ‘Palestinians’ living in Israel by religious orientation, thus inviting a ‘privileged’ Christian minority to compete on an equal basis with their Jewish peers & to the exclusion of their Muslim peers. (There are of course also a minority of Jews who also define themselves as ‘Palestinian’ too, but the argument presented here does not take full account of that group, although maybe it should). In WW2, a practice known as internment was used to contain (cont

7 ) Alana Turing (3) / UK
24/05/2014 18:25
those deemed to be a security threat to a given country, thus anyone with connections to non allied countries could be interned. Internment appears to be the situation practised both inside & outside of Israel now, with the practice of Administrative Detention & the refusal to let ‘Palestinian’ refugees return to what they perceive as their ‘homeland’. The practice of Administrative Detention is in contravention of the recent Universal Declaration of Human Rights which restricts the use of (cont

8 ) Alana Turing (4) / UK
24/05/2014 18:26
internment. Article 9 states that "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. The ROR is enshrined in UN Res 194. Another right that is also sometimes invoked in times of war, is the (sometimes controversial) right of conscientious objection, which is why ‘Palestinians’ living in Israel do not wish to undertake military service. Having pre ambled, by way of an answer, it would appear that Israel does not allow ‘Palestinians’ living in Israel any meaningful way to be (cont

9 ) Alana Turing (5) / UK
24/05/2014 18:28
able to identify as ‘Palestinian’ yet retain rights within the democratic system of Israeli law (or allow them multiple heritage). Were Israel to recognise that as a democracy, its citizens have the right to a ‘self identity’ that has multiple attributes eg ‘Palestinian’, Israeli citizen, person with brown eyes, likes falafael, etc, they might be able to formulate a more equitable & coherent society, within which to live. This does not mean sacrificing national security, but laws (cont)

10 ) Alana Turing (6) / UK
24/05/2014 18:30
pertaining to security should not be intrinsically linked to a person’s ‘self identity’, they should be extraneous to it. Thus the notion of ‘divide & reward/not reward’ the ‘Palestinians’ on the basis of religious adherence within the context of the argument above is wrong & flawed.
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