Sister Piera Carpenedo of the Sisters of St. Dorothy tells a story to her hearing-impaired students at the Ephpheta Institute in Bethlehem. (photo: Steve Sabella)
Palestine is among the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world and has been coveted or dominated by almost every civilization of the eastern Mediterranean.
Modern Palestine now denotes the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. According to the original terms of the 1947 U.N. partition plan of Mandate Palestine, the territories were to constitute a unified, independent Arab state. But Palestinian Arabs and neighboring Arab countries fiercely opposed the terms of the partition plan and attacked the nascent Jewish State of Israel. Over the years, some positive initiatives have advanced, but little real progress toward peace with justice has been made.
Demographics. Generally, accurate population statistics throughout most of the Middle East are difficult to ascertain due to the lack of census data. In Palestine, the movement of peoples — despite security efforts to the contrary — makes it more difficult. Here are some reasonable estimates gleaned from a variety of sources: Palestines total population is around four million people. Gazas 1.5 million people are almost entirely Arab Sunni Muslims, but around 4,000 Christians remain. The West Bank is more diverse. Three-quarters of its 2.5 million inhabitants are Arab Sunni Muslims. Jewish settlers, who dominate strategic areas of the West Bank, account for 17 percent of the population. At most, 50,000 Arab Christians — less than 2 percent — live there, principally in and around Bethlehem and Ramallah.
Sociopolitical situation. The Palestinian territories do not enjoy statehood, though there are some elements of self-governance. The Palestine Liberation Organization is recognized as the representative authority of the Palestinian people and has observer status at the United Nations. The Oslo Accords in 1993 established the Palestinian Authority as the territories governing body, vesting it with some degree of control over internal security and civilian-related matters. Currently, the Palestinian Authority “controls” only the West Bank.
Israeli-imposed restrictions on right of entry and exit, as well as movement within the West Bank, have isolated and fragmented Palestinian society. Israeli authorities exercise full civil and military control of 61 percent of the West Bank and the 150,000 Palestinians who live in that area. Classified as a high-risk area by international humanitarian organizations, it lacks safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities and is afflicted by high poverty and unemployment rates. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 10 percent of the West Bank will fall on the Israeli side of the separation barrier once it is complete.
After winning the parliamentary elections in January 2006, Hamas assumed complete control of Gaza. Conflict between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in June 2007 effectively severed ties between the two Palestinian territories.
Much of Gazas infrastructure was destroyed in January 2009 during the conflict between Hamas and Israel. The territory continues to lack a functioning sewage system (open sewage is commonplace) and basic necessities, such as food, medical supplies, construction materials and fuel. At present, Gazas sole power plant does not operate at full capacity, shutting down between 8 and 12 hours a day.
Egypt has lifted its side of the blockade to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. (Israel has not.) Still, residents depend on goods smuggled from Egypt via tunnels. Hamas authorities tax small businesses on the smuggled goods they purchase and charge tunnel operators an administrative fee.
Notwithstanding the current situation, education institutions in Gaza and the West Bank continue to operate. Public education is universal from grades one through 12. By regional and global standards, the territories enrollment and literacy rates are high.
Many Palestinians do not have access to affordable, quality health care. In Gaza, clinics and hospitals lack basic supplies, medications and equipment. Most health care facilities in both territories depend heavily on international assistance, such as aid and church organizations, to help cover operating costs.
Economic situation. Israels blockade of Gaza, which began in 2007, has devastated its economy. Two out of every three banks have closed. Half of Gazas residents are unemployed. More than three-quarters of the population live at or below the poverty line and more than half rely on international aid for survival.
Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the West Banks economy has struggled. Real GDP growth dropped substantially between 2000 and 2002, making modest recoveries in 2003 and 2004. It then contracted in 2005 and 2006. Unemployment rose in that period, exceeding a staggering 30 percent.
Since 2007, the West Banks economy has shown signs of recovery. The tourism industry, in particular, has experienced a relative boom.
Religious situation. Christian emigration is most dramatic in Palestine — despite the Palestinian Authoritys efforts to discourage it. Since 1967, Gaza and the West Bank combined have lost more than 35 percent of their Christian population to emigration. The most affected are the Christian communities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Ramallah, where they once dominated the population. Church leaders worry that, if the last remaining Christians emigrate, the Palestinian church — which is an integral part of the church of Jerusalem — will be reduced to empty shrines and charitable works of mercy alone.
Jerusalem remains the center of religious life for Palestinian Christians, who for more than 1,600 years entered its gates to venerate the sites associated with Jesus. Yet in the last two years, Israeli authorities in Jerusalem have tightened security measures during the Easter liturgies, allowing far fewer Palestinian Christians access to the Old Citys holy sites, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This year, no more than a few hundred Palestinian Christians participated in the Holy Fire celebration, which once attracted thousands. This has fueled tensions between the Greek Orthodox patriarchate and the local Orthodox community, who perceive the patriarchate as endorsing Israeli security.
Gazas beleaguered Christians continue their social service outreach to the community. Christians provide health care, education and rehabilitative and social services.