Bahbah: On Settlements, Power, and Christians in Palestine
By: Bishara A. Bahbah, Arab America Featured Columnist
I have just returned from my semi-annual trip to Israel-Palestine. It was a bittersweet visit. While it is always great to see family and friends, it is sad, if not downright depressing to observe what is happening to the people and the land.
The starkest observation that drew my attention was the sense of resignation or more accurately, defeat, among Palestinians. They conduct their daily lives around what Israel allows them or forbids them from doing. The abnormality of the Israeli military occupation has become the norm of daily life. This is in sharp comparison to the situation in Gaza where the political/military leadership of Hamas and the people themselves are fighting their imprisonment and isolation by building tunnels intended to reach Israel or marching toward and demonstrating within a short distance from the Israeli border demanding their return to their ancestral homeland in Israel itself.
No matter where you drive in the West Bank and Jerusalem – Gaza is off limits but open ony for a handful of visitors. Israel is building roads and settlements at a ferocious pace – one that far exceeds any officially published figures. It is a matter of time before the Palestinians will be permanently confined to semi-autonomous or self-ruling cantons. Security is firmly in the hand of the Israelis whether it is in the so-called Palestinian-controlled areas or any other part of the occupied territories. Yes, there are Palestinian security forces which number close to 70,000; however, they are restricted by the political leadership to doing Israel’s bidding in terms of subduing the local Palestinian population when necessary and, in turn, protecting Israel from any potential Palestinian attacks.
The function of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) has been reduced from a transitional authority that would lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state to administering a civilian self-governing local district that covers disconnected areas within the West Bank, similar to a county or a local city council in the United States. The final authority always lies in the hands of the Israeli Coordinator of what the Israelis call “Judea and Samaria.” The issuance of passports, the naming of ministries, and the appointment of ambassadors is a charade. No Palestinian passport can be issued without the approval of the Israelis. No travel permit can be issued without Israel’s approval, and even the movement between cities of the PA president has to be approved by the Israelis.
Even though Palestinians in the West Bank can criticize the Palestinian Authority, anything that amounts to a challenge to the authority itself is downplayed. The PA’s mandate to govern ended years ago and no national elections are envisioned given the predominant Israeli military presence throughout the West Bank, the PA’s lack of authority in East Jerusalem, and Gaza’s total isolation largely due to Hamas’ military and political control.
I have met with Arab supporters/donors to the Palestinians who are reluctant to donate funds to the PA for fear that it might be misused.
Two other observations caught my attention. The alarmingly dwindling number of Christians among Palestinians. Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem now number less than 50,000 or a meager 1 percent of the population. The largest percentage live in the Christian triangle of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala, in addition to Jerusalem and few other towns such as Ramallah, Taybe, and Jifna. Lack of housing and economic opportunities are the two primary complaints besides Israel’s oppressive practices toward the Palestinians both Muslims and Christians. With the exception of the Greek Orthodox Church (which is under Greek control), other Christian denominations have done an admirable job helping Christians and encouraging them to stay in Palestine.
The other observation relates to the people of Gaza. They are suffering mainly from occupation and suffocating isolation imposed by both Israel and Egypt which is further compounded by the schism between Hamas and the Fatah-dominated PA.
It pains me to admit that I do not see any viable resolution to the Israel-Palestine issue in the foreseeable future. However, so long as Palestinians stay on the land of their ancestors, Israel will never be able to live in peace until and unless it comes to the realization that forcibly controlling another nation is morally corrupting and unsustainable. History has never seen an empire or oppression last forever.
Prof. Bishara Bahbah was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.