Transcript of talk given by Sir Vincent Fean KCVO: "Christians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 2014"
I shall focus on the situation of Christian Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs): ie East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank – 22% of the land of Palestine under the UK Mandate after World War 2.
Anne and I lived in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, for just over 3 years. We left in January 2014, at the end of my posting as British Consul-General, Jerusalem, responsible locally for UK-Palestinian relations. We found living in Jerusalem spiritually uplifting, and politically gruelling.
I strongly recommend that you go and see for yourself where Christ walked. We found the more natural, less changed open spaces particularly enriching – the Sea of Galilee, Capharnaum, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane…
When Britain gave up the UN Mandate, Christians were over 20% of the population in Palestine. Now, they are less than 2%. The OPTs are 98% Sunni Muslim.
The Occupation is pervasive; its effect on Palestinians demoralising
The conduct of the Occupation has a growing negative impact on the lives of the Occupied Palestinian people – and on the people who conduct the Occupation. The effect of the Occupation is corrosive. Israel controls the Palestinians by land, sea and air – people and goods may only enter and leave the OPTs with Israel’s approval. Israel controls everything – including bandwidth – Israel bans 3G in the West Bank and Gaza. There is no distinction between the daily indignities experienced by the Muslim majority and by the Christian minority.
Examples: First, concerning East Jerusalem. If a Palestinian East Jerusalemite marries someone from Bethlehem, the Israeli –run Jerusalem Municipality’s preference is that they set up home in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, rather than in Jerusalem. It is very difficult to bring your Bethlehem spouse to Jerusalem – the relevant permits are usually withheld by the Israeli authorities. Without an Israeli permit, known as a Jerusalem Identity Document, Palestinians are forbidden to live in East Jerusalem.
If a Jerusalemite Palestinian leaves Jerusalem for an extended period, eg to complete postgraduate education abroad, s/he is deemed to have severed links with Jerusalem – so s/he may be denied residence rights in Jerusalem at the end of the studies.
Prospects for Palestinian children, Muslim or Christian
In Gaza, prospects for a decent life are close to zero for the 1.8 million inhabitants, most of whom are aged under 25. That was the bleak outlook even before the latest renewal of conflict. Israel has occupied Gaza since 1967. The Israeli practical closure of Gaza dates from 2007. The closure prevents the normal free circulation of people, goods and services between Gaza and the West Bank, and between Gaza and Israel. These policies have decimated the private sector in Gaza, and prevented Gazan students from studying in the West Bank, as they used routinely to do. Since July 2013, Egypt has increased the closure’s impact by closing frequently the Egypt/Gaza ~Rafah crossing – the only exit point from Gaza not controlled by Israel. There are 1,000 – 2,000 Christians in Gaza. They keep a low profile and suffer intermittent mistreatment by the de facto rulers of Gaza – Hamas and other factions. But today, all Gazans are suffering together.
In East Jerusalem and the West Bank, over 2.5 million Palestinians face the daily indignity of Israeli checkpoints, the illegal presence of 550,000 Israeli settlers, the Barrier [condemned as illegal by the International Court of Justice for the 90% of its course on Palestinian soil, effectively confiscating 9% of the West Bank] and Palestinian house demolitions without any possible security justification. These aspects of the Occupation – settlements, the Barrier, house demolitions – are contrary to International Humanitarian Law. Primarily because of obstacles generated by the Occupation, the West Bank economy [which continues to subsidise Gaza in an effort to keep Palestine united] is unable to grow to create enough jobs for the Palestinian University students graduating each year. That is why some clever young Palestinians migrate to the Gulf or to the West. When it comes to leaving, Christians have a practical advantage: so many Christians have left before them. The Christian Palestinian diaspora in eg the USA and Chile is huge and can offer a helping hand to Christian cousins wishing to start a new life away from the Occupation. It is easier for Christian Palestinians to start a new life abroad. And they do – not necessarily because they want to, but because the discrimination, political uncertainty and poor job prospects inherent in the Occupation mean that their chances of bettering themselves are greater abroad than at home.
Life for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem is better than in Gaza or the West Bank – but precarious. The 300,000 East Jerusalemites have a blue Jerusalem Identity Card enabling them to travel in Israel. They pay Israeli taxes. Christian East Jerusalemites have relatively easy access to the Christian Holy sites, though the Israeli security forces have prevented innocent worshippers from attending the Greek Orthodox Holy Fire on Easter Saturday.
Friends of the Holy Land
Friends of the Holy Land is a proudly a-political Catholic/Anglican charity which chooses not to go down the advocacy road. It focuses its efforts on grassroots projects to help Palestinian Christians to stay put in the Holy Land. For example, facilitating land purchase and housing construction for young Christian families in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Peter Rand and Sean Higgins are among the FHL’s highly competent fundraisers and astute project managers.
Political Prospectsfor the Israeli/Palestinian conflict
I express my purely personal view on the political prospects for the two state solution: Israel and Palestine co-existing, in peace, mutual security and mutual respect as equal sovereign states respectively on 78% and 22% of the land that was Mandate Palestine, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states. I firmly believe that this is the best outcome for both peoples – Israeli and Palestinian. That possible outcome is at very serious risk of disappearing, for reasons including:
- systematic Israeli settlement expansion in Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank, taking Palestinian land illegally and exporting citizens from the Occupying Power to live on it;
- the unwillingness of the present Israeli government to plan the ‘full, phased withdrawal’ of the Israeli Defence Forces from the West Bank as advocated by President Obama in 2011 – IDF withdrawal is essential to end the Occupation;
- lack of mutual trust (the conduct of the Occupation does not treat the Occupied people with respect, as equals) and Israeli reliance on violent deterrence in both Gaza and the West Bank, coupled with blind, malevolent violence from militants in Gaza.
In my view, we need to work for peaceful sovereignty for Palestinians across what are now the Occupied Palestinian Territories – a demilitarised sovereign state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, such as President Abbas has pledged to create. I do not see this coming about absent a change of mindset by Israel’s electorate. Israel’s current leadership does not wish to change its purely deterrence-based, land-acquisitive approach. I believe that the current Israeli approach will lead to a one-state outcome – a tragedy for both peoples, since it will be an apartheid state, with all that this means in terms of world opinion and eventual action by the international community.
I believe that to keep the two state solution alive needs action by key European governments, in two respects:
[a]strict differentiation between Green Line [pre-June 1967] Israel and the settler enterprise/ inhumane closure of Gaza, with consequences for illegal settlements. Settlements directly breach the 4th Geneva Convention, which Israel, the US and all EU states have signed. There should be consequences for breaking international law; and
[b] to demonstrate commitment to the two state solution, and give hope to those moderate Palestinians in Ramallah who practise full security co-operation with Israel despite what is happening now in Gaza, the British Government and other leading EU states should recognise bilaterally the state of Palestine under Occupation, just as His Holiness, Pope Francis, did during his May 2014 visit to the Holy Land. This political mark of faith in the two state solution will bring its advent nearer.
These two actions by like minded European states will affect the balance of power in future negotiations which are essential – but will only succeed when mindsets change.
What can be done to enhance the prospects for Christian Palestinians?
1. Pray for justice for the Palestinians, mutual security for Israelis and Palestinians, and peace
2. Visit the Holy Land, as Pope Francis, Cardinal Vincent [again in November 2014] and Archbishop Justin Welby [in June 2013] have done
3. Emulate at UK political level the Pope’s recognition of the State of Palestine, and endorse Archbishop Justin’s message during his visit: ‘Security for Israel, Justice for Palestinians – peace for all’. Our politicians need encouragement – by moving on bilateral recognition, they can preserve the 2 state solution, which is in clear and present danger
4. Distinguish clearly between Green Line Israel and the illegal settlement enterprise, while acknowledging that successive Israeli governments have promoted settlements. The Gaza/ South Israel tragedy will not end until the closure of Gaza ends, bringing renewed hope to people in Gaza. There need to be consequences for all breaches of international humanitarian law – whoever commits the breach.
5. Strengthen ties of friendship between the United Kingdom and the peoples of [a] Israel and [b] Palestine – the latter through health/education cooperation eg Connecting Classrooms at secondary/primary school level and Higher Education Scholarships for Palestinians [HESPAL] at tertiary level – more details available to readers with UK health/education interests
6. Work through Friends of the Holy Land, Medical Aid for Palestinians and others to make life in the Holy Land more hopeful for all those under Occupation – and for the Occupiers.
Sir Vincent Fean KCVO
British Consul-General, Jerusalem 2010-2014