Playing Identity Politics: Israel’s Targeting of Palestinian Christians

Around one fifth of the population of the Jewish state of Israel is not actually Jewish. Most of these around two million people are the descendants of the Palestinians who remained after the 1947-1949 ethnic cleansing that resulted in the founding of Israel. Because they are not Jewish, these Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated as second-class citizens and subject to dozens of discriminatory laws. However, even within this minority, the laws and policies of the state distinguish and discriminate based on religious and ethnic identity. Most recently, attempts have been made to drive a wedge between Christian and Muslim Palestinians within Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Such strategies of divide and rule are by no means new for the state of Israel. The most notable experiment began in the 1950s with attempts to co-opt the Palestinian Druze population of the state. The Druze are an Arabic-speaking sect with its origins in Islam and significant populations in Israel, Syria and Lebanon. In 1956, a law was passed requiring all Druze to serve in the armed forces after an agreement was reached between leaders of the community and the state. This agreement was held up as an example of coexistence and integration of non-Jews into the state of Israel and promised equality and opportunity to Druze who served.

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a Druze IDF Soldier in 1949

In reality, the deal was aimed at distinguishing the Druze from the Palestinian Arab minority to facilitate Israeli rule of the newborn state. In Israel, citizens are categorized as members of different “nationalities,” which include Jewish, Arab and Bedouin (another Palestinian group differentiated by the state). To further the separation of Druze from the Palestinian minority, they came to be identified as members of a “Druze” nationality. Additionally, Israel, which had and still has separate school systems for its Jewish and Arab citizens, designated a special school system and curriculum solely for Druze.

This separation of Druze and Palestinian identity has largely failed to bring the rights and equality promised. 65% of Druze land has been lost to the state since its founding. The highest levels of government and military positions have remained off-limits to all but a very few select Druze. Like most non-Jewish areas of Israel, Druze towns remain underserved, with families lacking electricity and the permission to build homes. Therefore, while some Druze have embraced their special identity in Israel, others have rejected it. There is a long history of Druze refusing to serve in the army which has been growing of late. In 2013, a group called Refuse was founded to encourage and support young Druze refusing army service and seeking to erase the sectarian divide between Palestinian Druze, Christians and Muslims.

However, as young Druze begin to turn away from the state and the military, the Netanyahu government has turned its attention towards Palestinian Christian citizens of Israel. Reminiscent of the policies in the 1950s towards Druze, several recent government plans have tried to differentiate between Palestinian Muslim and Christian citizens. These include a bill to distinguish Muslim and Christian citizens with regard to employment, the changing of some citizens’ nationality from Arab to “Aramaic-Christian,” and the sending voluntary draft notices to Palestinian Christians. The goal of these policies is once again to divide the non-Jewish minority of the state to facilitate rule. They also attempt to codify a sectarian distinction between Muslim Palestinians , who are seen as a threat to the state, and Christian Palestinians, who are seen as nonthreatening and therefore deserving of more rights.

While these attempts have been met with some success, they have been roundly denounced by Christian Palestinian leaders. These leaders argue that Christian Palestinians are an integral part of the Palestinian community and that, as non-Jews, they suffer the same challenges as their Muslim countrymen. Illustrating this sentiment, Palestinian Christian poet and citizen of Israel, Marwan Makhoul, penned a poem attacking Israel’s policy of isolating and recruiting Christian citizens to the Israeli miliatry. To Makhoul, this effort is a cynical exploitation of current events aimed at convincing Palestinians to join the army of the state that usurped their homeland, grabbing a rifle “aimed, basically, at themselves.”

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Palestinian Christians protest the occupation (picture via Activestills.org)

Similar attempts at creating sectarian divides have been made by the Israeli government in the West Bank. In the context of Christian emigration from the region, 60 Minutes ran a piece on Palestinian Christians and the challenges they face. A central figure in the segment was the then Israeli Ambassador to the USA Michael Oren. Oren attempted to blame the exodus of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank on Islamic extremism, defended the military occupation as necessary for Israeli security and even tried to censor the report before it actually aired. The Palestinian Christians interviewed, however, rejected Oren’s explanation for Christian emigration and his assertions that Israel protected Christians while the rest of the Middle East massacred them. They, like Christian Palestinian citizens of Israel, instead pointed to the unequal treatment of all non-Jews by the state of Israel and the military occupation of their land to explain Christian emigration and attacked Israeli attempts to separate the Palestinian community along sectarian lines.

It should come as no surprise that a state which defines itself according to religious identity would use identity politics to rule. By sowing sectarian differences, Israel tries to accomplish two goals. First, the policies aim to create division in the Palestinian community and the Palestinian national movement within Israel and the occupied territories to facilitate Israeli rule and discourage unified resistance. Second, these policies obscure the ways in which Israel’s ethnic exclusivity and military occupation violate the human and civil rights of all Palestinians, irrespective of religion. Even if Palestinian Christians or Druze do serve in the military or try to integrate into the state, as non-Jews in a Jewish state, they are precluded from equal rights and equal treatment under the law. Therefore, Israel’s attempts to play identity politics will continue to be resisted by Palestinians regardless of religion.

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