What will be the effects of displacing the Christian populations from towns like Bethlehem?

At present the "displacement" is happening rather slowly. As I wrote in my recent Newsweek piece, only about 1,500 of some 30,000 Christians in the Bethlehem area have left since the start of the al-Aqsa intifada, or about 5 percent. That's a significant number, but it doesn't yet seem to threaten the viability of the Christian community.

Still, if the erosion continues, it will raise questions about the fate of holy sites such as the Church of the Nativity and the St. Nikolas Grotto, and it would be a tremendous blow to the diversity of the Holy Land, which remains the vibrant hub of three of the world's great religions.

Population numbers in the Middle East are politically charged—whether it is Egypt or Lebanon or Israel/Palestine. As you have written about the declining numbers of Christians in Israel/Palestine, how do you get reliable numbers? What is the latest best estimate for the Christian population in the Occupied Territories?

The Christian Mayor of Bethlehem, Hannah Nasser, keeps pretty good tabs on the size of the Christian population in his area and in the Territories. There hasn't been a reliable census since, I believe, the mid-1990s, so one has to rely on the best estimates of church and political leaders in Palestine. Most agreed that we're talking about 50,000 to 60,000 Christians in the West Bank and perhaps a couple of thousand in Gaza.

Palestinian Christians stress how well Muslims and Christians have gotten along in Palestine for many centuries—in contrast to places like Lebanon and Egypt. If a Palestinian state does come into being, with Shari'ah law as part of the legal structure, can we expect that relative harmony to be maintained?

I very much doubt that Shari'ah law will be adopted by any Palestinian government. The vast majority of Palestinians are secular Muslims—as is the ruling Fatah party—and while fundamentalist Islam is gaining ground, I don't think its proponents will ever wield significant power in a future Palestinian state.

The real question is whether a Muslim-dominated secular government can be trusted to safeguard Christian rights. Based on their experience with the Palestinian Authority, many Christians appear worried.

When I read your description of the Abayat family, it felt like watching "The Sopranos"—all family values and gratuitous violence. Would you place this clan closer to an organized crime family or to a group of patriotic freedom fighters?

Mixed bag. Some of them were no doubt motivated to pick up guns out of anger at the Israeli occupation and out of stirrings of nationalist feeling. But it strikes me that most of them were opportunists and hoodlums who, because of rapidly changing political realities, suddenly found themselves empowered.

They went wild, not out of any sense of patriotism but because they were being paid or because law and order had broken down or because shooting Israelis and strutting around town with bandoliers of bullets made them heroic in many people's eyes.

Much of the Tanzim and Ta'amra violence depicted in your book seems not to be part of any well-planned strategy. Are their efforts as random and desultory as they seem from your account?

I never got the sense of any organized strategy from these guys, except to continuously demonstrate their violent opposition to the occupation by shooting at Israeli settlers and at army camps. There were occasionally well-planned crimes, such as the murder of the Israeli intelligence officer whose death I detail in the book. For the most part, however, the violence seemed opportunistic, sporadic, and not the product of any well thought out campaign.

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Does the Tanzim's use of women in suicide bombings suggest that they are less committed to Islamic ideals than Islamic Jihad and Hamas, whose women do not go out unchaperoned?

Undoubtedly it does: the Tanzim are an offshoot, remember, of Arafat's secular Fatah movement. However the lines have been blurred: notice how deeply religious Ahmed Mughrabi, the leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs brigades in Deheishe refugee camp, had become; and notice that the most recent suicide bomber in Israel, a woman from Jenin, was dispatched to her death by the Islamic Jihad movement.

The idea of becoming a Muslim martyr, or shaheed, sounds strange to American ears. How is it essentially different from what might have motivated an American soldier who risked his life on D-Day?

I don't think that the average American soldier deliberately sought out death. The shaheed embarks on his/her patriotic mission knowing that it will bring about his/her death—and embraces self-abnegation as a glorious end. Of course the shaheed is also certain (or professes to be certain) that it isn't really an "end," but merely a shortcut to paradise. Another distinction is that the Palestinian shaheed for the most part (but not always) targets defenseless civilians, while the D-Day soldier was fighting armed enemy combatants.

You tell about attempts by Muslims to seize real estate historically held by Christian families. You also note that in this part of the world "every square foot is invested with meaning." Why are land disputes are so much more explosive in Palestine than in America?

I think it's because the territory that they have been fighting over is so much smaller than that of the United States, and thus more precious because there's less of it to go around.

But also remember that land disputes define this conflict from its very beginnings—with the wave of Zionists who arrived here at the turn of the century and began purchasing property from Arab landowners, gradually laying claim to their own "state" on turf that Arabs claim they took unfairly. (They forget that so many Arabs in fact sold their land willingly).

The wars of 1948 and 1967 drove hundreds of thousands of Arabs from their land; the loss of land and its recovery has thus been at the root of the Palestinian narrative, and so it makes sense that any attempt by the Jews to take more land—whether by expanding settlements or carving out military security zones—would be so charged.

In your book you write, "The venom toward Israel that I frequently heard in Palestinian Muslim houses was noticeably absent here; this lack of malice reminded me that Palestine's Christians had not been driven from their land and forced to resettle in refugee camps." This is true of most of Bethlehem's Christians. But I know several Christians who were forced to resettle in refugee camps in the 1948 al-Nakhba. Is their experience any different?

You're right about that and I apologize for that omission. I think the biggest difference between most Christian refugees and Muslim refugees is that the Christians for the most part were more affluent and better connected and were able to settle abroad, while the Muslims wound up packed into the squalid refugee camps that cover Palestine and many other countries in the Middle East.


Related Elsewhere



Joshua Hammer's A Season in Bethlehem is this month's selection for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can read an extended review of A Season in Bethlehem and buy the book online.

More information is available from the publisher, including an excerpt.

Newsweek ran an excerpt.

Hammer discussed the book on NPR's Fresh Air.

PBS's Frontline also covered the Church of the Nativity standoff in Bethlehem.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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