Israel’s Knesset is set to vote on a bill which would identify Palestinian Christians with Israeli citizenship as non-Arabs, sparking outcry both within and outside of 1948 Palestine.
The bill was proposed by Yariv Levin, coalition chairman for the governing conservative Likud-Yisrael Beitenu faction, in January.
“My legislation will award separate representation and a separate frame of reference to the Christian public, distinguishing them from Muslim Arabs,” Levin had said at the time.
If passed, it would be the first time under Israeli legislation that Christian and Muslim Arabs would be separated into two different communities. “This is an important, historic step that could introduce balance to the State of Israel, and connect us [Jews] with the Christians,” he added.
“I make sure not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs.”
On February 19, the bill passed its second and third readings in the Israeli Knesset’s Labor, Health, and Welfare Committee and is expected to be discussed by MKs in an as-of-yet undetermined date in the near future.
If passed, it would be the first time under Israeli legislation that Christian and Muslim Arabs would be separated into two different communities.
Levin’s opinion in regards to the non-Arab status of Palestinian Christians was strongly condemned by Palestinians and Christian organizations that Al-Akhbar was able to contact in regards to the topic.
“First of all, Palestinian Christians and Muslims are the same,” Mustafa Barghouti, founder and Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Al-Akhbar.
Barghouti noted that some of the most prominent champions of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian liberation movement were Christians, such as George Habash and Edward Said.
“We are all proud of people like Edward Said who was at the forefront in the fight against occupation, colonialism, and occupation,” Barghouti said.
“This is an act of arrogance and a violation of basic rights. Israel is conducting the usual colonial practice of divide and rule,” he said, adding that Israel conducts “provocative actions” in order “to distract from the main issues.”
“What Israel is doing is the worst form of racism and orientalism. They have no right to speak on behalf of Christian Palestinians, and Christian Palestinians will no doubt respond to this,” Barghouti added.
Divide and Conquer
One justification that Levin relies on in pushing the bill forward was that it represented a form of protection for Christians against “extremist Muslims,” as well as pointing to Lebanon’s confessional system as a positive example of religious harmony and state stability.
“[Christians] do not see themselves as Arabs. They say, ‘We are not Arabs – we are separate.’ For 60 years the state treated all minorities as one homogeneous group, and it was a mistake.”
“Look at Lebanon, there is no Levin there, and their law stipulates that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament a Shia, and the prime minister a Sunni,” the Israeli political argued.
But Levin’s reasoning were bluntly rejected by many 1948 Palestinian Christians, which the bill allegedly “protects.”
“I, and my family, refuse this distinction. There are only a few, few Christians who accept this. Most Arabs living in Israel are tied with Palestine,” Julius, a 19-year-old Palestinian living in Haifa, said to Al-Akhbar.
“The Israelis are trying to separate us from the rest of the Palestinian community, especially as the Arab mobilization against the Israeli state is growing, and it is worrying them,”“The Israelis are trying to separate us from the rest of the Palestinian community, especially as the Arab mobilization against the Israeli state is growing, and it is worrying them,” he said, referring to the growing protest movement by 1948 Arabs against the current ethnic cleansing by Israeli authorities of Bedouin communities along the Negev desert.
“We are aware of this plan of theirs. It aims to make us forget our identity and make Christians and Muslims turn against each other,” Julius said.
Across the divide into the occupied and shattered enclaves of the West Bank, members of the Palestinian Christian community echoed Julius’ sentiment.
“[Israel] is actively trying to divide solidarity. We all lived and live under the occupation, the colonization, the bombings, and more. They are attempting to manufacture a new idea to discriminate between our community,” Osama Awwad, a Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem, journalist and working with the Holy Land Trust.
Ultimately, Awwad said, the bill is illusory because “Israel wants to be recognized as a Jewish state and it means that anyone who is not Jewish will not have any tangible rights.”
“Through such laws, it is clear that Israel is trying to push forward its apartheid policies in all levels, from the division of land to ethnicity and religion,” he added.
According to CIA statistics, 123,000 Arab Christians live in Occupied Palestine, and another 226,000 reside in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Despite Levin’s contention that Israel is the only place that “protects” Christians, churches in the West Bank are regularly targeted in “price tag” attacks by fanatical Israeli settlers.
Additionally, Palestinians, whether within the 1948 borders and beyond, are frequently victims of racist incidents by Israelis, and their perpetrators are rarely prosecuted by Israeli authorities.
“While it’s true we are vulnerable elsewhere in the region, we are the same in blood, language, culture, and social traditions with others. The only difference is religion,” Julius said of his personal experience.
And in Israel, Julius added, “We are living with barely any rights. We are denied opportunities like jobs because employers want Jews rather than Arabs. There are a lot of these forms of discrimination going on.”
“If you ask someone living in the Holy Land where they are from, they will say they are Palestinians first. Then they mention their religion. There is a distinction between being a citizen and then faith. They say, ‘We are one people as Palestinians, and there is diversity within the Palestinian community,’” Father Paul Lansu, a Roman Catholic priest and senior policy advisor for Pax Christi International, said in a brief phone conversation with Al-Akhbar.
Father Lansu has been visiting Palestine numerous times each year ever since he set foot there more than thirty years ago in 1981.
“I can imagine that some Israeli politicians and groups are pushing this type of thinking because they want to split Palestinians into different groups. For example, with the Christians, the Israelis are trying to bring them into the army for example,” he opined.
“We really regret putting people against one another. We are against fragmentation and division. It favors nobody.”
Levin justifies the bill based on his personal belief that Christians and Muslim Arabs are inherently different. He had attempted previously to similarly separate the Druze community living in 1948 Palestine from the larger Arab community in a legislative standpoint, to varying degrees of success.
Levin’s current attempt is part of a wider historical context of Israeli attempts to sow division amongst different Palestinian groups within 1948 Palestine, the most notable instance involving the Palestinian Druze.
Since the early years of the Israeli state, Druze with Israeli citizenship were given rights and duties distinct from other Palestinians, as Israel highlighted the “shared destiny” and the “covenant of blood” between Druze and Jews, much like Levin’s modern-day efforts to “strengthen our [Jews’] connections with the Christians.”
“If you ask someone living in the Holy Land where they are from, they will say they are Palestinians first. Then they mention their religion. Druze have been subjected to compulsory service in the Israeli army since 1956, and were given a separate legal status from other Palestinian citizens of Israel a year later, which established their status in Israeli law as “non-Arabs.”
The decades-long discrimination between Druze and other Palestinian citizens of Israel has led to broader support of the Zionist state among 1948 Druze.
But despite Israel’s attempts at assimilation, not all Druze have forgone their Palestinian and Arab identities. In 1958 the Free Druze Young People Organization, later joined by the Druze Initiative Committee in 1972, rose as organizations for conscientious objectors who refused to participate in the “exploit[ation of] Druze soldiers for oppressive military actions against the sons of the Palestinian people.”
Cases of Druze defectors made it in the headlines in the past several years, showing that Israel’s policies have not succeeded in fully turning 1948 Palestinians against one another.
Ever since its brutal creation, Israel, as a Zionist state, has had a convoluted relationship with identity. In order for the Zionist project to sustain itself, it aggressively attempted to deny any alternative narrative.
From attempting to wipe away the indigenous Palestinian identity that existed prior to the 1948 ethnic cleansing to even distorting various Jewish contemporary and historic identities in order to assure the dominance of the European Zionist narrative.
The nature of the system can result in absurd situations, even clashing with the desires of Israeli citizens themselves.
One recent example illustrates this desperate drive by Israeli authorities to enforce a particular overarching identity that conforms with European Zionism.
In October 2013, 21 Israeli citizens went to court to demand that the state recognize their wish to be classified as “Israeli nationals” instead of classifying them according to an ethnic group. It was outrightly rejected.
This current attempt to re-classify Christian Palestinians is rooted in a historical, never-ending, and vain bid by Israeli authorities to sustain an artificial state, especially at a time when Zionism is being viewed by more and more people as an obsolete and discriminatory ideology.
Yazan al-Saadi and Chloé Benoist February 21, 2014