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Christmas Snub Highlights Triangle of Religious Tensions in Holy Land

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Danny Naveh couldn’t resist the temptation to provoke Arab Knesset members.

Speaking in the Knesset last week, the Israeli Cabinet minister charged that Muslims in the predominantly Christian town of Beit Jalla in the West Bank were sexually harassing young Christian girls — and that the Palestinian Authority neither prevented it nor punished the perpetrators.

The reaction to Naveh’s allegation was harsh. Knesset Member Mohammad Barakeh charged that such statements had a “Nazi” connotation. His colleague, Ahmed Tibi, scornfully spoke about “Danny Goebbels Naveh,” referring to Hitler’s propaganda chief.

And Gush Shalom, a far-left group, published ads comparing Naveh’s statement to the Nazis’ Der Sturmer newspaper, which tried to link Jews to sex crimes.

Naveh’s comments did not come out of the blue; indeed, reports have circulated for some time of Christian girls in the West Bank being raped and harassed by Muslims.

Yet the comments must also be seen in the context of the public and parliamentary onslaught against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government after it barred Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from Christmas mass in Bethlehem.

On the defensive, Israel is playing up the Palestinians own Muslim-Christian tensions to deflect some heat from itself, some say.

The Palestinians always have counted on the support of the Islamic world, but last week they basked in the sympathy of the Christian world as well.

Arafat could hardly have asked for a better Christmas gift.

After failing to convince Israel to allow Arafat to attend midnight mass, Pope John Paul II used his traditional Christmas message to focus attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel insisted that it will not relax its travel ban until Arafat arrests the Palestinians who assassinated Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavam Ze’evi, on Oct. 18.

Palestinian officials announced this weekend that they had arrested four men suspected of involvement in the attack. Israel said the four were involved in the plot but were not the actual killers.

In any case, Bethlehem was not the only area where relations between the Jewish state and the Holy Land’s Christian community were on shaky ground.

In Nazareth, construction work continued on a huge new mosque in the center of town despite objections by the city, the local Christian community and a coalition of the Christian denominations in Israel.

Israel also has yet to approve the election of Irineus the First, the new Greek Orthodox patriarch, because he is considered too close to the Palestinian Authority.

In the past, the Christians were the majority in the “Christian triangle” of Bethlehem, Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour in the West Bank, a prosperous community of businessmen who made the region one of the economic success stories of the Palestinian areas.

Under Palestinian rule, however, the Christian community has been decimated. Intimidated by the Muslim- dominated Palestinian Authority and exasperated by the endless conflict with Israel, thousands of Palestinian Christians have emigrated in recent years, joining large communities of Palestinian and other Arab expatriates in Latin America.

Some 170,000 of the Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas are Christians. Of those, 50,000 to 60,000 live in the latter.

Where Christians were a 60 percent majority in the triangle in 1990, however, the 23,000 who remain today constitute a 20 percent minority in a predominantly Muslim region. A similar process has affected the 20,000 or so Christians of Ramallah.

As radical Muslim influence has grown — especially in the three refugee camps within Bethlehem’s municipal boundaries — Christian businessmen were criticized for maintaining business contacts with Israel and were accused of selling land to Jews, a crime punishable by death under P.A. law.

Israeli sources say that Atef Abayyat, a leader of the Tanzim militia of Arafat’s Fatah Party who was assassinated by the Israel Defense Force in the early stages of the intifada, was responsible for violence against Christians in the triangle.

“Abayyat was the head of a gang which harassed the Christians — until he was given the opportunity to harass the Israelis,” Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said.

In addition, the frequent use of Beit Jalla by Palestinian gunmen firing on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo is not accidental. Israeli analysts deduced that the Palestinian Authority hoped to draw return fire that would damage Christian holy sites, rousing the Christian world against Israel.

Tanzim activists frequently fired from positions close to Christian religious institutions, including the Christian-Orthodox Club, formerly a popular restaurant for Israelis coming from Jerusalem. They also put pressure on the Christian communities over what some Muslims considered the Christian women’s “too-liberal” style.

The harshest allegation was that even secular PLO and Palestinian Authority activists were sexually harassing Christian women. The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported last week that a Muslim Tanzim activist who raped a Christian girl several months ago was released from prison due to pressure from his Tanzim colleagues.

Only after angry protests by Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch in Jerusalem and an ardent Palestinian nationalist, did Arafat instruct his security forces to act against harassment of Christians, the report said.

However, Arab Knesset members charge that spreading such allegations is an unacceptable attempt by Israel to incite Christian-Muslim tension and justify Israel’s own snub of Arafat on Christmas.

“I have testimonies that rabbis harassed their students, and I have evidence of an IDF general and a former defense minister who were convicted of sexual assaults,” Barakeh said. “They are all Jews, but I still don’t suspect that this says anything about the Jewish people.”

Israeli officials, in return, questioned why Arafat, who is Muslim, needed to be present in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

In fact, the occasion is highly symbolic. Since the Palestinian Authority took control of Bethlehem in the mid-1990s, Christmas has become the pre-eminent Palestinian national festival. It also allows Arafat to project himself as the guardian of Christian interests in the Holy Land, a figure of supposed religious tolerance, on a day when the eyes of the world are focused on Bethlehem.

In addition, Islam considers Jesus one of the prophets proceeding Mohammad, just like Moses.

Minister Tzachi Hanegbi last week played down the public relations damage caused by Israel’s Christian policy.

“It will take but a few days before world public opinion forgets about the whole thing,” he said, referring to the ban on Arafat’s visit to Bethlehem.

Perhaps so, but Hanegbi — as well as Sharon and other Israeli leaders — disregard the long-range effects. Israel no longer is perceived as an impartial bystander in the relations between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.

There is obvious tension between Christians and Muslims in Palestinian society.

Yet when the Christians have had to choose between ties to Israel or their ethnic and political loyalty to their Muslim Palestinian brethren, they have always opted for their kin — though whether out of interest or fear is unclear.

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