Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:
"Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Covering Israel’s Religious Wars", Religion in the News, Fall 1999

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Hide, Jesse, Hide

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism


















































































































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Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return
by Rachel Stroumsa

Last Christmas, Yasir Arafat was late to Mass.

The chairman of the Palestinian Authority had attended the traditional midnight service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem every year since 1995, when Bethlehem came under Palestinian rule. So when he failed to appear on time, it was generally assumed that he had been detained by bad weather. Then, just before the stroke of midnight, he and his entourage entered the church, causing general disruption.

As far as the Palestinian press was concerned, Arafat’s presence at the Christian service was just another symbol of the "unity in the struggle" of all Palestinians, as an editorial in the Authority-affiliated daily Al-Ayyam said.

But to the Christians I spoke with, Arafat’s belated entrance seemed blatantly calculated. Some interpreted it as simple disrespect. Others thought Arafat was trying to play on the Christian expectation of Christ’s arrival at midnight to foster an identification of himself with Jesus, just as he encourages his identification with the 12th century Muslim warrior and liberator of Jerusalem, Sallah al-Din (Saladin).

Either way, it aggravated feelings already rubbed raw in the Palestinian Christian community. Christmas celebrations in 2000 had been drastically curtailed and practically no decorations were put up out of respect for those who had died in the latest upsurge of Israeli-Palestinian violence. But to the Muslim community the Christian holiday festivities, limited as they were, proved that the Christians were once again setting themselves apart.

The resentment of Christian Palestinians was not, however, mentioned in the Palestinian press (or in any other Arab news account, for that matter), just as several attacks on Palestinian Christians by Palestinian Muslims shortly before Christmas were not covered. "Unity" is the Palestine media’s constant refrain—an ideological commitment that requires that the numerous fissures in Palestinian society be overlooked. Thus the same Al-Ayyam that lauded Arafat’s appearance at the Church of the Nativity also mentioned (in a December 31 op-ed by regular contributor Mamduh Nofal, one of Arafat’s political advisers) that protesters "chant during their marches ‘unity, national unity, both Islam and Christianity.’" The decision to highlight this infrequently used slogan rather than the much more common ones that underline the Islamic nature of the struggle, seems symptomatic.

For the religious dimension of the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, often expressed in terms of a religious war between Muslims and Jews, has created a conundrum for the bi-religious reality that is the Palestinian Authority. The very fact that the current conflict has come to be called the "Al-Aqsa Intifada"—after the compound built on the site where, Muslims believe, Muhammad landed after a miraculous single night’s journey from Mecca—demonstrates the extent to which this latest eruption of violence has a more overtly religious character than previous ones.

This emphasis on religion is evident, first and foremost, in popular demonstrations. In a January 12 demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah, for example, a donkey was paraded through the streets dressed in a Jewish prayer shawl, with a swastika painted on its forehead. Although this particular event received no coverage, Palestinian television and radio have generally helped legitimize the interpretation of the struggle as a religious one.

"The Israelis" have largely been replaced in Palestinian broadcasts by "the Jews." To be sure, Palestinian television newscasters continue to refer to the state of Israel and to Israelis, as do most of the actual Palestinian negotiators, but all other commentators, featured personalities, and ordinary citizens speak almost exclusively in religious terms. "A Jew is a Jew is a Jew; this is all there is to it," declared one participant in a January 31 talk show on Palestine TV, the official television channel, that was devoted to a discussion of "The True Face of the Jewish People."

Palestinian radio and television also frequently broadcast songs like the one featured in December and January with the refrain: "Where is Omar, Where is Sallah al-Din? The Jews have killed us, in Qana and Deir Yassin!" Given how fully Palestinian radio and television are controlled by the Authority, there can be little question of the Palestinian leadership’s willingness to demonstrate, if not highlight, the religious character of the struggle. Similarly, the daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah, which is often considered an official Authority publication, on February 15 ran passages from a new Palestinian play in which the play’s hero calls down heavenly curses upon the Jews for stealing his land.

Control of Al-Aqsa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are unquestionably religious issues—brought to the fore by negotiations over the final status of Jerusalem. More surprising, however, is how the issue of the Palestinians’ right to return to their ancestral homes in Israel has been transformed within the Palestinian community into a religious issue on a par with Jerusalem. Indeed, some Palestinians have begun to call the conflict the "Intifada of the Return." (An organization called "The Brigades of the Return" claimed responsibility for detonating a bomb in an Israeli taxi March 1.)

Arafat first defined the right of return as "sacred" in a speech to a conference on Palestinian refugees in Gaza on September 17, 1996. While other Palestinian leaders occasionally echoed his remarks over the next couple of years, it was not until the summer of 1999 that the "sacred right of return" became a rhetorical commonplace, not just among politicians but also in newspaper headlines.

In August 1999 the Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michael Sabbah (who calls himself a refugee), visited the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem and, in a widely reported remark that was often repeated among Christians, compared the refugees’ plight to that of Jesus, "who lived as a refugee in a cave." On the Muslim side, some newspaper columnists now describe the Palestinian right of return as "fardh ‘ayn" as opposed to "fardh kifayya"—meaning that it is a religious precept that every Muslim is obliged to perform personally, not one that the community can fulfil by proxy. This means, in effect, that a refugee who does not attempt to return to his ancestral home is transgressing a religious law.

This sacralization of a Palestinian right of return may be at the root of the widely divergent reports in the Israeli and Palestinian media on the progress of negotiations in Taba in late January. Whereas the Israeli side leaked news of serious and significant progress on the refugee issue, the Palestinian dailies and television newscasts reported that the progress was only slight and that "a huge gap" remained. The differing Israeli view was generally attributed by the Palestinian media to a desperate wish on the part of the Barak government to deliver achievements before the presidential election.

It is now clear that the Taba negotiations focused on ways to compensate the refugees—either for their years of suffering (according to the Palestinian interpretation) or in return for their houses (according to the Israeli view). Because agreements on compensation were achieved, the Israelis saw substantial progress. But because the Palestinian right of return was not discussed, from the Palestinian perspective little was accomplished. As the Arab press prominently reported, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrima Sabri, an Arafat appointee, had previously declared in a fatwa (religious decree) that it was "religiously impermissible" for refugees to be forced to choose between return and compensation, since "the land of Palestine is blessed and holy and is not something that can be bought or sold."

Why has the "sacred right of return" tended to take the religious spotlight away from Jerusalem? The most plausible answer is that Jerusalem tends to bring to the fore tensions between Christian and Muslim Palestinians.

On the one hand, Christians have no basis for claiming that Jewish rule over the church of the Holy Sepulchre is intrinsically less acceptable than Muslim rule, especially given the problematic treatment of Christian rights in Jerusalem before 1967 under Jordanian sovereignty. On the other, the voices declaring that Jerusalem is only Muslim and harking back to Sallah al-Din’s victory over the Crusaders can all too easily turn against the Christians.

This helps explain the position of nationalist intellectuals like Abdallah al-Hurani, expressed in a December 27 op-ed in Al-Quds, the independent, largest circulation Palestinian daily. His piece was entitled "Jerusalem is part of the cause, while the refugees are the entire cause"—a position that he reiterated in a long interview with Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah on December 31. The undeniably critical issue of the refugees can, in short, be raised without in any way calling national unity into question. Sacralized, in effect, as an article of Palestinian civil religion, the issue permits both Christians and Muslims to unite against the Jews.

In contrast to the Palestinian media, the press in other Arab countries has dealt with the religious dimension of the latest intifada in different ways. In Lebanon, for instance, scarcely a day goes by without a prominent mention of the refugees and their right of return—but the religious aspect of that right is downplayed, both because of the Lebanese fear of re-igniting their country’s own smoldering divisions and because a large proportion of the journalists are themselves Christian; there is little love lost between them and the Muslim Palestinians. As for the personal testimonies so common in the Palestinian media, they are replaced by features describing the refugee camps as "The Time Bomb," as the headline to a lengthy story in the weekly Al-Usbu’ al-‘Arabi declared—an existential danger to the Lebanese state.

In the Egyptian and the Gulf press, on the other hand, the refugees are not given such prominence, and Jerusalem retains top priority. Al-Khalij, published in the United Arab Emirates, recently ended a 22-installment exposition of "Islamic Jerusalem Throughout the Ages," displaying both the Muslim connection to Jerusalem and showcasing clerics and scholars denying the existence of a Jewish Temple.

The Egyptian and Gulf press have also been marked by a proliferation of in-depth stories asserting that the Israelis are not true Jews at all. The motivation behind these stories is to avoid the charge of fostering "religious war" by showing that the Arabs do not object to the Jews per se, but only to the Jews in Israel. This claim is demonstrated in various ways—either by pulling out Israeli statistics on the number of Russian immigrants to Israel who are not considered Jewish, or (as in a January 17 article in the main Egyptian daily, Al-Ahram) by claiming to demonstrate that Israel’s Askenazi majority, being of European origin, are not "original" Jews but members of the Central Asian Khazar tribe who converted to Judaism for practical reasons in the 9th century.

That being said, it is worth mentioning that the increasingly religious tone of the Arab-Israeli conflict has led to a reaction from mainstream Egyptian journalists, most of whom are decidedly secular. Indeed, an op-ed by Fahmi Huwaidi in Al-Ahram on January 23 praised the growing rapprochement between religion and secular politics in the Islamic and Arab world.

This very different treatment of the religious dimension of the conflict only underscores the distinctive evolution of the Palestinian media’s approach. While Jerusalem and the holy sites on the mount initially served as religious rallying cries, they have proved to be tricky given the demographics of Palestinian society. Although Palestinian Christians comprise only about two percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza, their importance to the Palestinian economy and self-identity is far more substantial. The Palestinian newspapers, ever wary of promoting civil strife, have worked hard to bring Christians into the struggle by highlighting the refugee issue. Palestinian television, more inflammatory than the print media, has overtly pitted religious people of all faiths (including the small Druze and Samaritan populations) against the immoral Jews.

Yet this approach may itself turn out to be something of a double edged sword. For in promoting the unity of Christians and Muslims, it highlights a different tension in Palestinian society: the struggle over reforming the corrupt institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Even now calls are being heard to capitalize on unity by beginning "The Internal Intifada"—the fight against corruption. Leading the calls are the Palestinian Authority’s old rivals, the Islamic parties.

See companion articles:

See correspondence: letter to the editor from Ron Stockton, University of Michigan-Dearborn, with reply from Rachel Stroumsa

Related Articles:

"Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage", Religion in the News, Summer 2000

"Covering Israel’s Religious Wars", Religion in the News, Fall 1999