The Forgotten Palestinian Refugees

By Daniel Schwammenthal*
     Meet Yussuf Khoury, a Palestinian refugee. No, not one of those descendants of refugees, who are born in United Nations-run camps without ever having set foot in their alleged homeland and kept in eternal misery as a propaganda weapon against Israel. Yussuf Khoury really fled his birthplace just two years ago. He wasn’t running away from Israelis, though, but his Palestinian brethren in Gaza, seeking safe haven in the “occupied” West Bank. A 23-year-old student, Mr. Khoury’s crime in the Hamas-ruled land was to be a Christian, a transgression he compounded in the Islamists’ eyes by writing love poems.
     Before fleeing Gaza, “Muslims tied to Hamas tried to take me twice,” says Mr. Khoury. He didn’t want to find out what they’d do to him if they ever caught him. He hasn’t seen his family since Christmas 2007 and is afraid even to talk to them on the phone.
     Speaking to a group of foreign journalists in the Bethlehem Bible College where he has taken up the study of Christian theology, Mr. Khoury describes a life of fear in Gaza. “My sister is under a lot of pressure to wear a headscarf. People are turning more and more to Islamic fundamentalism and the situation for Christians is very difficult,” he says. In 2007, one year after the Hamas takeover, the owner of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore was abducted and murdered. Christian shops and schools have been firebombed. Little wonder that most of Mr. Khoury’s Christian friends have also left Gaza, he says.
     The plight of Christians in the Palestinian territories—and other Arab societies for that matter—is one of the most under-reported stories in the Middle East. When Western media cover the issue at all, it is often to denounce Israel and its separation fence. Never mind that until Palestinian terrorist groups turned Bethlehem into a safe haven and springboard for suicide bombers, Bethlehemites were free to enter Israel, just as many Israelis routinely visited Bethlehem.
     The other truth usually ignored by the Western press is that the barrier helped to restore calm and security not just in Israel but also in the West Bank and Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, which Palestinian gunmen stormed and defiled in 2002 to escape from Israeli security forces, is now filled again with tourists and pilgrims from around the world.
Yet even in Jesus’ birthplace, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, Christians live on a knife’s edge. Mr. Khoury tells me that Muslims often stand in front of the gate of the Bible College and read from the Koran to intimidate Christian students. Other Muslims like to roll out their prayer rugs right in Manger Square. Asked about why Muslims would pray so close to one of Christianity’s holiest sites, Pastor Alex Awad, dean of students at the Bible College, diplomatically advises me to pose this question to the Muslims themselves. Mindful of his community’s precarious situation, he, like many representatives of the Palestinian Christians, is at pains to stress that whatever problem Christians may have with their Muslim neighbors, it’s not the PA’s fault.
“Muslims and Christians live here in relative harmony,” he tells reporters, only to add that Christians “feel the pressure of Islam….There is intimidation and fanaticism but these are little instances and there is no general persecution.”
     Samir Qumsieh, the founder of what he says is the Holy Land’s only Christian TV station, also stresses that there is no “Christian suffering” and that the Christians’ problems are not orchestrated by the PA. Yet his stories of land theft, beatings and intimidation paint a different picture. If the Palestinian Authority really doesn’t approve of such injustices, why is it doing so little to stop it?
     Only recently have some Christians begun to talk about how Muslim gangs simply come and take possession of Christian-owned land while the Palestinian security services, almost exclusively staffed by Muslims, stands by. Mr. Qumsieh tells of a Christian man who was abducted by Muslims to Hebron and tortured while the Palestinian police did nothing. His own home was firebombed three years ago and the perpetrators were never caught.
     “We have never suffered as we are suffering now,” Mr. Qumsieh confesses, violating his own introductory warning to the assorted foreign correspondents not to use the word “suffering.
Always a minority religion among the predominantly Muslim Palestinians, Christians are, in the words of Mr. Qumsieh, “melting away,” even in Bethlehem. While they represented about 80% of the city’s population 60 years ago, their numbers are now down to about 20%, a result not just of Muslims’ higher birth rates but also widespread Christian emigration.
     “Our future as a Christian community here is gloomy,” Mr. Qumsieh says.
     The world shrugs. Why Palestinian suffering not attributable to Israel barely registers in our collective conscience is a question few people seem willing to ask.
     * Daniel Schwammentha is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal Europe
     1. The Wall Street Journal– Europe
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