The Palestinian intifadah highlights tensions for Christians in the Middle East.

Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the U.S.-brokered Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, yet many around the world wonder how much closer to peace the Middle East has moved in the past decade. And although Christians make up a small minority of both sides of the Israeli/Arab conflict, they are players caught in the churning turmoil. Virtually every Christian in the region has been affected in one way or another by the 16-month-old Palestinian uprising, the intifadah.

Shaking Off

According to Samir Kafity, Anglican bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, intifadah literally means “shaking off” and in Arabic is the same word that Christ used when he instructed his disciples to shake off the dust from cities rejecting them. With the intifadah, the Palestinians are attempting to shake off 20 years of Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Although the news media generally paint the intifadah as being a bunch of unruly teenagers throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, the tactics of the uprising are much more comprehensive. Since December of 1987, Palestinians have been on a partial strike, with all Arab-owned businesses in the Occupied Terrorities—including the once-lucrative souvenir shops in Jerusalem—shut down after noon. In addition, general strikes are called with increasing frequency, with all Arab activities ceased. Other strategies include the resignations of Palestinian police and municipal workers, a boycott of Israeli-made products, repeated protests and demonstrations, a general policy of noncooperation with Israeli authorities, a campaign of pro-Palestinian graffiti, and the flying of the Palestinian flag, which is illegal in the Territories.

As the intifadah has picked up momentum, particularly among Palestinian young people, the Israeli military has been increasingly frustrated in attempts to suppress the uprising. Earlier this spring, the U.S. State Department’s annual human-rights report criticized the Israeli military’s use of “unnecessarily harsh measures” in dealing with the intifadah. Measures cited included the closure of schools in the West Bank from kindergarten to university, poor treatment of Arab prisoners, the detaining of thousands of Arabs without charge or sentencing, and the destruction of Arab homes.

The army defends its conduct, noting there is a code of behavior that soldiers must follow. Acknowledging that abuses do occur, the army nonetheless says it does the best it can under conditions of a rebellion.

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The intifadah has involved all segments of the Palestinian population, young and old, male and female, and, according to Bishara Awad, president of the evangelical Bethlehem Bible College in the Occupied Territories, “Christian Palestinians are also involved in the Palestinian struggles with Israel.” Currently, less than 10 percent of the Palestinian population is Christian.

Awad said that in the midst of the intifadah, the Bible college is attempting to be a model of Christian behavior. “We tell [our students] the ways of the Lord are different,” he said. “We do not throw stones, but we do other things with the intifadah, like visiting the sick and jailed, and observing the strikes.”

The uprising has taken a toll on the school, which has been officially closed, along with all schools in the West Bank, since December 1987. (Israeli officials say the schools in the area pose a “security threat” and claim that since the schools have been closed, the number of stone-throwing incidents, as well as the number of Palestinian deaths and injuries, has dropped.) The college has been attempting to hold classes in a nearby facility; however, classes are interrupted for strike days.

Awad said that because of the political unrest and difficulty of holding classes, the number of enrolled students has dropped to 15. He said the school is very concerned about one student, Khader, who was picked up at the beginning of February by the Israeli secret police. As of last month, Khader had been held without charge and placed in an isolation cell. “Khader is a Christian and loves the Lord,” Awad said. “We are not aware of him being involved in any political activities.”

In addition, Awad’s brother, Alex, who had been finishing his master’s degree at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, has been denied permission to return to Bethlehem and his duties as dean of the college. Awad, who holds an American passport, had hoped to return to pastor a church in Jerusalem and continue his work at the Bible college.

As the level of violence increases in the Territories, Christian Palestinians, often with the help of American missionaries and relief groups, are working to help the injured, widowed, and displaced persons. Israeli rubber bullets and tear gas have created an overload for medical facilities. For example, in Gaza, which is the site of daily confrontations between youth and the military, the Episcopal-run Ali Arab hospital is often filled with victims of gunshot wounds, beatings, and tear-gas raids. Many of the patients are children and teenagers. Charitable groups are also beseiged with individual cases where family homes have been demolished or family members have been imprisoned or suffered particular hardships.

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Some Christians have become very deeply involved in the cause of Palestinian independence. Anglican Bishop Elie Khoury has generated controversy in some church circles because of his position on the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Khoury says his work with the PLO shows that Palestinian Christians and Muslims can “live together beautifully” and work as equals. “Our strategy is for peace,” Khoury said. “Pluralism has become a necessity.”

Victor Diab, the Palestinian pastor of an Episcopal church in Amman, Jordan, said those who were initially critical of Khoury’s involvement with the PLO “are seeing it may be good” in light of recent events. “The church has been involved in the national aspirations of the people and community at large,” Diab said. “I don’t know where you can draw the line between church and politics.”

Christian Arabs In Israel

The intifadah has created difficult situations as well for Christian Arabs living within Israel and holding Israeli citizenship. Riah Abu Assal, pastor of the Christ Evangelical Episcopal Church in Nazareth, said that while Israeli Arabs have held a few strikes in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in the Occupied Territories, most “don’t support the intifadah as much as I’d like them to.” Assal said many of the Palestinians within Israel view the West Bank “like it was on the Iran/Iraq border,” or somewhere else far removed from their daily lives. “They don’t want the Israelis to view them like the other Palestinians,” he said. “They want good relations with the Israelis.

Assal himself has been outspoken in support of the intifadah. He is general secretary of the Progressive List for Peace party, a political party of Jews and Palestinians that currently holds two Knesset seats. He has been forbidden to enter the West Bank and restricted in other travel because of his political activities.

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Other Palestinians within Israel are finding increased burdens placed upon them as a result of the intifadah. Father Elias Chacour, a Melkite priest who is active in reconciliation efforts, is battling for permission to build a second building for his Prophet Elias school near Galilee (named for the prophet Elijah). The school has 580 Christian and Muslim students for grades 9–12, and two Jewish teachers. School officials had hoped to add a second building to increase enrollment to 800 and add further facilities.

Chacour applied for a permit to begin construction on the second building, but never received any reply from the authorities. Deciding he “needed a school more than a permit,” Chacour began building and immediately heard from the authorities, who got a court injuction to forbid him from building any further. He has since received all the required approvals, but the Ministry of the Interior claims the foundation of the new building is ten meters too far in one direction. Authorities are threatening to bulldoze the building. Chacour is known in American evangelical churches for his autobiography, Blood Brothers (Chosen Books, 1984).

Tear Gas Is a Verb, Too

At the Near East Council of Churches’ (NECC) educational center in the Gaza Strip, an English class for young Palestinian women was learning about gerunds—words that are both nouns and verbs. When the time came for examples, the teacher chose a term she thought would be meaningful.

“Tear gas is a verb, too,” she told the students.

In the world of the Gaza refugee camps, where tear gas, gunfire, beatings, curfews, and arrests are commonplace methods to put down the intifadah, the teacher’s example was indeed apt. The uprising was born in Gaza, and Gaza remains a hotbed for ferment and violence.

In the midst of the turmoil, the NECC Committee for Refugee Work is attempting to equip Palestinian refugees to help themselves. At the Gaza center, in addition to English courses, women can participate in secretarial studies, computer studies, family studies, and cooperative projects in knitting, weaving, dressmaking, and sewing. Course work in accounting and business administration is also under consideration. For young men, the center offers vocational training in such skill areas as metal and electrical works, welding, and carpentry.

But the NECC self-help project has been hampered by the effects of the intifadah. Students and instructors have difficulty coming to the center because of curfews, strikes, and travel restrictions. Classes have also been interrupted by the arrests and detentions of students and teachers. And students have endless stories of personal and family harassment by the Israeli soldiers attempting to quell the uprising.

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Still, the NECC works to keep the projects going. “The Gaza Strip has been neglected for a long time, and therefore it is imperative to extend every possible support to meet some of the needs in order to alleviate the suffering of the people, especially during these difficult days,” said NECC executive secretary Constantine Dabbagh.

Supporting Israel

Israel’s tiny Messianic Jewish population has also been touched by the uprising. “The intifadah has been such a trauma to the land and the country and believers,” said David Stern, a Messianic leader in Jerusalem and author of the book Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel.

Stern is critical of a “replacement theology,” which says that since the Jews did not live up to their covenant with God, believers in Jesus Christ have become God’s chosen people. Stern, like most Messianic Jews, instead believes in an “olive tree theology,” by which Gentiles have been “grafted into the chosen people.”

Most Messianic Jews share the concerns and fears of the Israeli government and support its positions on the Palestinian issue. For many of these Christians, the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and signals the coming of Christ. One Jewish believer, whose parents moved to Israel from Yemen in 1938, argued that “the God of Israel is standing with Israel because that is his purpose.” “It’s a matter of survival,” she said. “The Jewish people are fighting for their lives.”

Many Messianic Jews also share the Israeli skepticism about a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state. They fear the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East and are concerned that a Palestinian state would be the stepping stone for a “holy war” against Israel and Christians living there.

Questions about human-rights abuses are uncomfortable for many Jewish believers. Some are involved in the Israeli Peace Movement and protest action against the Palestinians, but others, while acknowledging there are abuses, argue that in light of the past and continuing violence done by Palestinians, the Israeli behavior is “quite ethical.”

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For still others, the question is larger than current political events. “I’m not so interested in defending the Jewish behavior,” Stern said. “The solution to the problem of the land is to come to biblical faith, to bring the gospel to the Jewish people, and Gentiles too.”

There have been some attempts at fellowship between Palestinian and Jewish believers, but both sides admit the road has been difficult. “We know the body is one … and a unified group of believing Arabs and believing Jews would be … a powerful one,” Stern said. “But it’s hard to know where the line between politics and religion is drawn.” Stern and Bishara Awad have been in correspondence and have met together to discuss each other’s theologies regarding the land and the Jewish people.

While Christians on both sides of the conflict agree on little politically, they do share a common fear and a common hope. The fear is that an even greater bloodbath will occur if extremists are allowed to seize power on either side before a meaningful solution can be found.

The common hope is found in the gospel. “Just because we live in a religiously polarized society is no excuse to be timid about our Jesus and our great salvation,” Bishara Awad said. “It is our prayer that the church of Jesus Christ will get bold again, look up to God, be filled with his Spirit, and recognize that the church’s mission is to be witnesses.”

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