December 28, 2004
Friend of FLAME:
As this tumultuous year comes to a close, we are optimistic, but still
dreadfully cautious about the situation in the Middle East. Arafat's
death has renewed hopes for progress in Israel's war against terrorism,
since his successor, Abu Mazen, seems now to be disavowing the disastrous
Intifada II as a "mistake." Calling this three-year fiasco
a mistake is one of the year's great understatements, since it has
caused the deaths of more than 1,000 Israelis (mostly innocent civilians)
and more than twice that many Palestinians (mostly terrorists and
other fighters) and has produced absolutely no progress toward peace.
To the contrary, the Palestinian economy (and consequently the Palestinians'
standard of living) has sunk to new lows. The U.S. has justifiably
stepped back from the "road map" until the Palestinians
demonstrate (with actions!) a commitment to defeat corruption and
terror and a sincere desire for peace. Nonetheless, some glimmer of
hope flickers around the prospects of elections in the territories
in just a few weeks, in which Abu Mazen and his Fatah party will almost
surely prevail. The question is whether Mazen will be able to rein
in the more militant factions of the party, like the al Aksa Brigade,
and, more importantly, whether he will be able to put a lid on murderous
Hamas, whose avowed purpose remains the complete destruction of Israel.
Those are huge "ifs." Meanwhile, in Gaza, the terrorists,
led by Hamas, continue to refine their rocket-making abilities and
have introduced a new, longer-range and more powerful improvement
on their crude Qassam rockets, called the al Yasser (after their beloved
Arafat). Hamas shows no sign of reducing its almost daily rocket attacks
on Israeli civilians in Gaza, and frighteningly enough, they recently
won some 20 percent of the seats in local elections in the West Bank
(Fatah took 65 percent of the seats). As Christmas arrived this year,
Bethlehem, also in the West Bank, reflected some of the positive changes
that have occurred, at least temporarily, since Arafat's death. Christians
(and even Jews) were able to visit the holy sites . . . most amazingly,
under the protection of Palestinian security. The report below, by
Israeli journalist Judy Lash Balint, puts a human face on life in
Israel and the territories and lends some cheer to what remains a
depressed and very dangerous neighborhood.
Best regards and happy New Year!
||If you haven't visited
the FLAME website lately (www.factsandlogic.org),
I recommend you check out our latest advisory on One Land
for Two Peoples Is it a solution to the Arab/Israeli
conflict or a recipe for disaster?" This ad recently
ran in dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide and ably
discredits the desperate and fantastical notion currently being
promoted by some Arabs that Israel and the territories should
become a single "bi-national" state, consisting of both
Jews and Arabs.
The season to be jolly . . .
in the Holy Land
by Judy Lash Balint
While the usual hand wringing from Diaspora Jews over
how to deal with Christmas reaches us by Internet, Israelis don't
generally pay the Christian holyday too much attention.
Nevertheless, there are certain signs here that the season of joy
is upon us. Colored lights adorn the main streets in the southern
part of the city and on the main road into Bethlehem. No Christmas
symbols on the lights, but they do go up the week before the holiday,
and come down after the Orthodox Christmas in January.
The Jewish National Fund and the Jerusalem Municipality offer free
Christmas trees to anyone who can get to City Hall to pick one up,
and the Ministry of Tourism sponsors a well-attended holiday reception
for Christian religious leaders.
This year, the Arthur Toscanini Foundation in cooperation with a host
of Italian regional councils, brought the full Arturo Toscanini Philharmonic
Orchestra and the Slovak Philharmonic Choir to Israel for two concerts
of Beethoven's glorious Symphony No. 9 in D. Under the banner 'From
Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Concert for Life and Peace,' conductor Lorin
Maazel led the musicians in performances in both cities. I didn't
see a review of the Bethlehem concert, but the Jerusalem SRO audience
gave the musicians a rousing 7 minute standing ovation after the magnificent
and rousing finale. Tickets were free and "offered to the citizens
of Jerusalem as a sign of friendship and solidarity by the Italian
municipalities, provinces and regions."
The front rows were reserved for an array of Jerusalem's Christian
clergy, many decked out in assorted head gear, who mingled with every
Italian-Israeli in Jerusalem. Arthur Toscanini's granddaughter flew
in from Italy, and the MC noted that it's almost 68 years ago to the
day, that Toscanini came to Jerusalem to conduct the newly formed
Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hebrew University amphitheater.
During the inevitable speeches offered in Italian and Hebrew, several
orchestra members could be seen staring down at the audience. It was
almost as if they didn't quite know what to expect Israelis to look
like, given how we're portrayed in the European media. Perhaps they
were contrasting us with the Arab audience the night before in Bethlehem.
At a news conference held at Israel's Foreign Ministry ttwo days before
Christmas, Israeli authorities announced that as a gesture of goodwill,
and due to "the change in atmosphere," armed Palestinian
police would be allowed to control Bethlehem between December 24-January
19 (the end of the Orthodox Christmas season and a Moslem festival)
and there would be a general relaxation of movement across the checkpoint
dividing Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Christian Israelis would have free
access in and out of Bethlehem in their own vehicles, and more than
4,000 Christian residents of Bethlehem have been given permits to
visit family in Israel during the holiday season.
But for this Israeli, Bethlehem on Christmas eve was a strange and
disturbing place. It's been four years since my last visit into the
town to cover the visit of the Pope in 2000. Then, the 10 minute ride
from Jerusalem to Bethlehem led to a town bustling with expectation
and optimism. Fresh plaques announcing donations from the governments
of Japan, Italy and Norway adorned renovated buildings in the old
city. Tourist buses filled the parking lots and the new luxury Paradise
Hotel was ready for business.
Today, the atmosphere is sullen and jarring. The checkpoint between
Jerusalem and Bethlehem has been spruced up, and Israeli soldiers
are doing their best to be polite and welcoming.
Just below the sign telling drivers to stop for a document check,
Israel's Ministry of Tourism has put up banners reading: "Happy
Holidays and a Happy New Year."
Driving up in my car with Israeli plates, a quick check of my press
credentials are all that's needed to get waved through. Parked on
the side of the road is my usual mode of transportation to the only
place in Bethlehem I visit regularly. Oblivious to the Christmas eve
traffic, the driver of the bulletproof Egged 163 bus is waiting for
passengers to Rachel's Tomb.
At the news conference in Jerusalem, I asked the Israeli army spokesman
whether the easing of restrictions for Christian visitors to Bethlehem
would carry over to Jews wishing to visit Rachel's Tomb. For the last
four years by order of the army, the only way Jews can get to the
site is by bullet proof vehicles with an army escort. No plans for
any changes to that order, I was told. It's still too dangerous to
allow Jews to travel unprotected to the heavily fortified holy site.
So we drive past the barbed wire and the unfinished security wall
that is supposed to cut Rachel's Tomb off from Bethlehem. The wall
ends uselessly at the side of the road several hundred yards short
of the tomb--halted because of legal challenges brought by Bethlehem
There's barely any traffic on the road leading to Manger Square, but
armed, black-uniformed Palestine Authority police have set up roadblocks
anyway, presumably to show just who's in control. Several of them
are wearing black parkas with the insignia 'USRD 84' on their shoulders
as they lounge next to their brand new pale blue police cars. As a
cold drizzle begins to fall over the hilly town, a parade of local
scouts makes its way into Manger Square, the focal point for Christmas
activity. The expressionless teenagers with small Palestinian flags
sewn onto their shirts march without enthusiasm to military music.
Across the square a few shops are open, but there are few tourists
around. A small group of Japanese visitors huddle around their tour
guide and we hear English from a few people, but most of those who
gather in the famous square are locals.
The northern side of the square is bounded by the Bethlehem Peace
Center, home to various PA ministries. A gigantic poster of Yasser
Arafat hangs from the roof.
Few people bend down to enter the small opening into the Church of
the Nativity. Inside, there's no evidence of the desecration that
took place when a few dozen Arab terrorists and their International
Solidarity Movement sympathizers decided to use the church as a refuge
for a few weeks back in 2002.
Today, uniformed Palestinian police patrol the church. The Christian
monks passing out candles don't seem to notice the presence of a Palestinian
policewoman wearing the traditional hajib headscarf.
As the music from the parade outside fades away, a harsh voice from
the mosque on the western corner of Manger Square starts to broadcast.
It's loud enough that the message is heard all over the winding streets
and steep alleys of the old city. Nothing much is happening in the
square, but hundreds of men begin to gather. Men of all ages start
to spill out of the mosque and line up in rows facing south to Mecca.
Media photographers are drawn as if by a magnet to the scene as the
faithful lay down their small prayer rugs on the wet stones.
In unison, called by the imam broadcasting from the mosque they fall
to their knees covering almost half the square directly in front of
the Church of the Nativity. In just a few hours, Christian clergy
officials will make their official Christmas eve entry to the Church,
but at midday a visitor would be hard put to recognize Manger Square
as a Christian holy place.
There are less than 150,000 Christians in the entire country today,
and they've been fleeing Bethlehem in droves over the past four years.
Today, only 35 percent of the town is Christian--around 21,000 people.
Of course the Christian mayor blames the situation on Israeli restrictions,
but Moslem intimidation of Christians in Bethlehem and neighboring
Beit Jala is well documented.
The US State Department International Religious Freedom Report for
2004 noted that, "The Palestinian Authority failed to halt several
cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by
criminal gangs. There were credible reports that PA security forces
and judicial officials colluded with members of these gangs to extort
property illegally from Christian landowners. Several cases of physical
attacks against Christians in Bethlehem also went unaddressed by the
The security wall and fence (most of it is a fence--only 3 percent
of the anti-terrorist barrier is the concrete wall that photographs
much better than an electronic fence) are in place around most of
Bethlehem because of the number of Arab terror cells in the town.
The two bus bombings that rocked Jerusalem in 2004 (on the #14 and
#19 routes) were both perpetrated by terrorists from Bethlehem.
In the center of Bethlehem we find Martyrs Street, marked with a special
black and red street sign. Posters of armed "martyrs" are
everywhere, along with posters reading: "We will return,"
over a map of the entire state of Israel.
Indeed, the propaganda battle goes on all over Bethlehem. At the beautifully
appointed International Center of Bethlehem, an attractive young Arab
woman is holding court with a few western journalists. In the complex
filled with a brand new health club, restaurant, art gallery and media
center she tells them: "People are losing their homes, our kids
are being taken to prison, men and women are losing their lives."
The nodding reporters dutifully transcribe her comments but don't
ask a single question during the ten-minute monologue.
Maybe they should have talked to the nuns who run Bethlehem's Caritas
Baby Hospital. Yesterday they said that they were afraid "Palestine
might become an Islamic state." Palestinian Christians have no
illusions, they explained. "Christians fear they are becoming
a shrinking minority, overwhelmed by Muslims who are having more children."
The nuns denounce "Islamic extremism...[that] makes life for
Christians very difficult."