Israel/Palestine — January 2007

Sociopolitical Situation

In recent months, intra-factional fighting has intensified between Hamas loyalists and Fatah security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas. This internal strife has been labeled as the worst strife in a decade. Abbas’s call for early presidential and parliamentary elections has also sparked outrage from the democratically elected Hamas and has heightened the dispute between the two factions. A recent assassination attempt of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and the abduction of journalists have also raised tensions, while sporadic armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas supporters and armed family feuds have either injured or killed Palestinian civilians, including children — this despite the tenuous ceasefire that has been sustained for four weeks.

The shelling of Beit Hanoun in mid-November by the Israeli Defense Forces, in response to Qassam rockets fired at Sederot by Palestinian militants, also heightened tensions and caused outrage from Palestinians and the international community. 20 Palestinian civilians were killed.

The halt of international aid to the Palestinian Authority, which as a consequence could not afford to pay PA salaries (more than a million Palestinians benefit from governmental expenditures), plunged most Palestinians deeper into poverty. The unemployment rate currently stands at 30 percent, while 70 percent of all Palestinian households live below the poverty line — an increase of 16 percent since 2001. Breadwinners of some Palestinian households are unable to provide the basic necessities for their families, especially during Christmas and the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha. In addition, movement restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank, either by the Israeli Defense Force’s 528 checkpoints and other physical barriers on Palestinian roads or the along the 362-km separation wall have barred Palestinians from access to their jobs, farms, families, schools and places of worship.

Religious Situation

Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem were sparsely attended, even though Israeli tourism officials predicted some 16,000 people would visit Bethlehem. To facilitate tourism, the Israeli government announced the easing of travel for pilgrims and tourists to prevent traffic jams at the Gilo crossing point. Israel’s Ministry of Tourism announced that it would provide shuttle service for pilgrims, distribute free Christmas trees and issue permits for West Bank and Gaza Strip residents as well as Arab Israelis wishing to visit Bethlehem. However, Christian pilgrims and citizens, including members of the Pontifical Mission staff, who journeyed to Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Christmas Eve reported that travel through the checkpoints was very difficult; every car was checked thoroughly and there were long delays.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics published the latest figures for the Christian population in Israel: 148,000 people, or 1.2 percent of the population, are Christian. From the same figures, statistics indicate Christians in Israel have the highest number of children enrolled in school (around 65%), higher than the Jewish and Muslim communities.

The chief pastor of the Anglican Church, Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, is facing charges of corruption and is the subject of a four-month long investigation by an internal church committee. Allegations accuse the bishop of using his position to improve the financial situation of his son-in-law. Although no official announcement has yet been made, church opponents are urging the bishop to step down.

Shortly after Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech in September in Regensburg, several churches were set afire in the northern part of the West Bank, including four in Nablus. Some sustained minor damages while others, including a Greek Orthodox church in Tulkarem, were torched. Some of these West Bank churches serve a number of faithful Palestinian Christian families that live on the outskirts of these cities, in remote villages. Upon the Pontifical Mission’s visit to these families, they expressed that they represent a small minority in their community and are often neglected. They also expressed concern about their future and feared imminent attacks on their community.

Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, has yet to be recognized by Israel. Without a letter of recommendation or “Berat” from the Israeli government, the Greek Orthodox Church is unable to deal officially with banks, commercial firms, land registry and other state agencies; their leader cannot be authorized as the legal representative of the church. The former patriarch, Irineos I, now a monk, continues to refuse to acknowledge the Holy Synod’s decision to depose him from office. Theophilos refutes Irineos’ claim and would not honor his predecessor’s real estate transactions.

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