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Facts and Logic About
the Middle East
P.O. Box 590359
San Francisco, CA 94159
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 (aka Mahmoud Abbas), 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 (some 70
percent innocent civilians) and more than 3,300 Palestinians (over 70
percent terrorists and other armed 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 his own 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 An Assessment
of Arafat Will his death open the way for peace?"
This ad recently ran in dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide
and ably exposes Arafat's legacy of evil, duplicity, and terror.
It should put in dramatic relief the challenge of reaching a peace
with a people whose political apparatus has been left bankrupt and
whose aspirations have for decades risen no higher than the murder
of innocents and destruction of the Middle East's only democracy.
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
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 city officials.
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
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 PA."
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
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