New report describes continuing forcible displacement and dispossession of Palestinian Christians

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  June 15, 2023

A new report from BADIL and Kairos Palestine seeks to activate the Western church in opposition to Israel’s colonial-apartheid system.

It’s not uncommon that a Christian Palestinian tour guide is asked when his family became Christian, as if they were evangelized by Western missionaries. The polite response? “On the day of Pentecost, some fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection.” A more pointed, perhaps impatient response: “My friend, you became a Christian because my family suffered a harsh Roman occupation to bring the Christian faith to the world.” 

The above account points to a widespread ignorance on the part of Christians in the West, who know very little about the existence—let alone the plight—of Christians in Palestine, who share with their Muslim neighbors the effects of Israel’s policies and practices that amount to forcible displacement and dispossession. 

According to a report released in May, Palestinian Christians: The Forcible Displacement and Dispossession Continues, “There are many who are surprised to learn that Palestine has always been—and still is—the home of a vibrant Christian community. Sadly, there is a real risk that the presence of a Christian community in Palestine will soon come to an end.”

The report was produced by BADIL Resource Center, an independent human rights non-profit committed to defend and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons, and Kairos Palestine, a Christian Palestinian nonviolent movement advocating for an end to the Israeli occupation and the achievement of a just future for Palestinians.

The authors describe seven policies that Israel uses against Palestinians throughout the whole of Mandatory Palestine (1948 Palestine, Gaza, the West Bank including East Jerusalem) and those in exile: denial of residency; land confiscation and denial of use; discriminatory planning; denial of access to natural resources and services; imposition of a permit regime; fragmentation, segregation and isolation; denial of reparations; and suppression of resistance.

“Whether these policies are considered separately or taken together,” the report charges, “they amount to forced population transfer, a grave breach of international humanitarian law (IHL).”

In their thoroughly footnoted document, BADIL and Kairos Palestine describe how Israel’s colonial-apartheid practices cripple the Palestinian right to self-determination, prevent a thriving Palestinian community, and “impose overwhelming obstacles to the fulfillment of daily life [creating] a coercive environment inducing Palestinians to leave their home and communities.” Descriptions of each of the seven policies include past and present examples of their impact and point to international laws that prohibit Israel’s practices. 

While the report focuses on the Palestinian Christian community in an effort to awaken the Western church and international bodies to the perilous situation—citing “an alarmingly increased level of hostility and attacks by Jewish-Israeli colonizers, under the watch and encouragement of Israeli officials and forces”—authors of the report make it clear that they are not distancing themselves from the Muslim community. They write, 

Every Palestinian’s life, regardless of one’s faith, is directly affected by Israeli laws and policies that aim to displace Palestinian communities and alter the demographic balance in favor of Jewish-Israelis, thereby undermining the Palestinian claim to self-determination.

…[We] are not a passive community that is disconnected from [our] non-Christian siblings as many would suggest. [We] struggle as one in the Palestinian liberation struggle, be it through legitimate armed resistance, or through practicing sumud (or resilience) in all aspects of life, or through refusing to capitulate to conditional funding restrictions on [our] organizations, among many other means.

Still, attention to the Palestinian Christian community makes an important political point reflected in the report’s quoting from Palestinian theologian Munther Isaac’s book, The Other Side of the Wall.

For many [Western] Christians, it is much more convenient and less challenging to think of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a conflict between two ideologies and forces, or to use the infamous words of George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks, “the axis of good vs. the axis of evil.” The “axis of good” is understood as the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the axis of evil as Islam….

So here is the challenge we present: we are Palestinians, but we are not Muslims. We break the stereotype and challenge the common narrative by insisting that our existence in the land today is not a clash between the Judeo-Christian civilization and Islamic terrorism. The conflict is not religious, but rather political. It has modern historical roots that have to do with one nation oppressing and occupying another. 

Isaac was one of three presenters in a May 24 webinar that launched the report. “The past, present and future is the same for all Palestinians,” he said. “There’s no distinct Christian solution to our [common] problem.” In addition to presenting the diversity of the Palestinian community as a way to refute the argument that the situation is a religious conflict “rather than a political one with historical roots,” Isaac spoke of the importance of the Christian community’s significant contributions to Palestinian life, its culture, education, leadership, and economy.

While acknowledging the importance of recent human rights reports citing Israeli apartheid, the document’s authors situate the seven Israeli policies comprising forced displacement and dispossession in the context of colonial-apartheid, which serves as the “point of departure for our analysis of the historical and present-day situation in the whole of Mandatory Palestine.” They contend that “apartheid on its own is an insufficient framework to analyze the realities Palestinian face. Apartheid is a manifestation of the settler-colonial agenda followed by Israel since its creation.”

During the May launch, Palestinian historian and academic Nur Masalha said that it is important to distinguish colonialism and settler-colonialism. “British colonialism was about exploiting the population. Settler colonialism is about eliminating the indigenous population.” In his book, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948—based on Israeli archival sources from the 1920s and 30s—Masalha makes the case that the “decision to expel Palestinians was taken in 1937, not 1948.” 

“Indeed,” the BADIL-Kairos report argues, “without acknowledging the settler-colonial nature of Zionism and the Israeli regime, we fail to account for the domination, ethnic cleansing, and forcible displacement of a people, the Palestinians…. Accordingly, apartheid is only one of three pillars and systems of domination that characterize the Israeli regime in Mandatory Palestine—the second being colonization, and the third being forced transfer.”

During the panel discussion, UN Special Rapporteur of the Occupied Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese posed the rhetorical question, “How do we get out of this?” Echoing the report’s plea, she said, “International law. It’s not too much to ask. International law should not be an option on the menu, in the toolbox of conflict resolution.”

“People call me an advocate for Palestinian rights,” Albanese said. “I’m not. I just speak the law, the language of the law. The thing is, the law is so close to the heart of the Palestinian question. It’s just impossible to use [the law] because it’s kept prisoner of political considerations. The law must apply.”

The report concludes by calling on the international Christian community to embrace ten specific recommendations, including an acknowledgment of the colonial-apartheid regime; a recognition of the right of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons to reparations (return, restitution, compensation); an affirmation of Palestinians’ right to resist the occupation, dispossession and denial of fundamental rights; opposition to antisemitism without equating anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel’s unjust actions with antisemitism; and a rejection of “theologies and understandings of the Bible that have been used to justify the oppression of the Palestinian people.” 

Authors of the document express their “hope that the lack of urgency and action on the part of churches… will not define the last chance to salvage the Christian presence in the land. Christians must act as the future of Christianity in the land where it all started is at stake.”

Jeff Wright is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)