New identity law raises fears of Israeli effort to divide Christians

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Originally published on Ma’an News Agency.

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — A new law to create a separate “Christian” nationality for Palestinian citizens of Israel successfully passed through the Knesset on Monday with more than three-quarters of votes in favor.

The bill, which creates a distinction from the existing “Arab” nationality, has raised fears among many Palestinians that a renewed push is underway by the state to divide their society along religious lines.

The law’s supporters have made clear that the new measure is not merely a legal formality, but instead intends to de-emphasize the Arab identity of Christians by racializing and politicizing existing religious distinctions.

“It’s a historic and important step that could balance the State of Israel and connect us to the Christians, and I am careful not to refer to them as Arabs, because they are not Arabs,” sponsor Likud MK Yariv Levin said in January, adding that Christians are “our natural allies,” unlike Muslims “who want to destroy the state from within.”

On Wednesday, PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi condemned the law, calling it an effort to transform the occupation into “an outright religious confrontation,” and stressing that Israel is adopting a “policy of the classification of its citizens based on religion or ethnicity” as part of a larger system of “apartheid.”

A Knesset committee is even looking into instituting compulsory army service for Israel’s 120,000 Palestinian Christians, a proposal which has raised ire among both Muslims and Christians citizens, who are currently exempted.

But Palestinian society is not taking these efforts lying down.

One member of the Knesset has even called upon the pope to intervene. Civil society groups on both sides of the Green Line, meanwhile, are mobilizing a campaign of local and global resistance to what they fear is a a larger campaign to tear their religiously diverse society apart.

‘Divide and rule strategy’

“We will do everything in our power to stop this law,” says Rifat Kassis, head of the Palestinian-Christian activist group Kairos.

“We are against it. All informed Christians are against it,” he says, highlighting that the vast majority of Christians in Israel as well as the 50,000 Palestinian Christians in the West Bank — where he is based — oppose the measure.

“Christians are an integral part of the Palestinian community … We are Palestinians just like any other.”

While Kassis acknowledges that some Christian Palestinians inside Israel do support the law, he insists they are a tiny minority. “We should respect differences in opinion, but (the boycott movement) is supported by (the) vast majority of Christians” in both the West Bank and Israel, he explains. “A minority thinks differently, but this phenomenon is being encouraged by the state itself.

“In Kassis’ view, the law reflects the “apartheid nature” of the Israeli state and its inability to “deal with its citizens as citizens” but instead as a collection of religious groups.

The roots of the law, Kassis argues, are in the “the British divide and rule strategies,” referring to how British colonizers seized upon religious differences in order to enlist locals in the colonial project. The colonizers often favored certain groups — particularly Christians — and emphasized their links to European civilization. This denial of indigenous identity to Christian Arabs was intended to sever their connections to their neighbors and weaken Palestinian society and resistance.

‘A methodical plan since 1948’

Many view these efforts through a similar lens, stressing that Israeli authorities have historically sought to manipulate and politicize cultural or religious divisions to weaken the Palestinian national movement.

Nidaa Nassar, a project coordinator for a Palestinian youth organization in Israel called Baladna, argues that the moves are “not a marginal phenomenon, but a methodical plan that has been implemented gradually since 1948.”

“These are part of a politicized project to divide us, because if we become small groups, we we will stop sharing our national identity,” she says.

Israeli government institutions “try to find partners in order to find ways to collaborate with Palestinians,” in the process exploiting the “weak points” in Palestinian society in Israel for political purposes.

Nassar argues that sectarianism — along religious, tribal, regional, and other lines — exists, but it becomes a much more serious issue when “recruited for political goals.”

In December, Baladna launched a campaign against sectarianism in all its manifestations, holding workshops in Palestinian communities across Israel and launching an awareness campaign.

One video for the campaign features a doctor diagnosing a patient with the “disease” of sectarianism.

“The base of our work is raising national identity, bringing together different groups and ensuring strength of national identity,” Nassar explains.

 ‘Pure propaganda’

In recent years, Israeli authorities have increasingly sought to promote Palestinian enlistment in the military. Although these efforts have been met with widespread public rejection, some Christians and Muslims have signed up. Army Maj. Shadi Rahal told the Associated Press last year that 208 Muslims and 137 Christians had signed up voluntarily.

Israeli military advertisements directed toward Palestinian Christians in particular, meanwhile, have increased.

One such video, released in January, focuses on a young Christian woman who voluntarily signed up for the military. In fluent Arabic, both Monalisa Abda and her mother speak with pride about her decision to serve her country, and encourage others to enlist. Facebook users reacted in anger, and many mocked the upbeat tone of a video about signing up to fight in the army.

Elias Hawila, a Palestinian medical student with Israeli citizenship from Haifa, considers the video “pure propaganda.”

“One does not know whether to laugh at the absurdity of the situation or be sad that she and her mother are being used in this way,” he explains, adding: “Her mother sounds like she is trying to sell some sort of laundry detergent, not trying to convince parents to send their own children to use violence against their own people!”

From a Christian background himself, Hawila calls the effort to promote conscription a “ludicrous” idea, explaining that he “strongly objects to the government’s false notion of integrating the Christian population.”

“Palestinians were always made up from different religions and all are an integral part of Palestinian society,” he adds.

 

‘We must all work together to fight’

The possibility of compulsory recruitment of Christians into the Israeli army raises the specter of the Druze and the process of thorough de-Arabization the community has experienced since Israel’s founding. The Druze are a religious minority for whom compulsory military service was instituted in 1957.

Generations of youths in the Druze community have fought for Israel against Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. Today, few Druze identify as Arab, and even fewer as Palestinian, even though they share language, customs, and history with their Arab neighbors.

“There is a fear that the experience of the Druze will be repeated with Christians through the implementation of forced conscription,” Nassar of Baladna explains.

Her organization supports a growing movement among Druze youth to refuse conscription, but the movement still faces an uphill battle within the community.

Nassar does not believe that Israeli authorities will succeed this time around, however, stressing that Palestinians are more “aware and organized” than they used to be.

“They say it’s a Druze issue, but it’s not. It’s not a Christian issue. These are national issues,” she stresses.

“We must all work together to fight.”