This week provided a potpourri of issues emanating from the Middle East and many of them, as expected, challenge us to adapt to a rapidly changing political environment. Among those events the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land stood out as a missed opportunity to gain an objective understanding of the complexity of the situation. The Pope’s visit to the Middle East troubled me not because it lacked good intent but the way it was politicized by the Palestinian Authority to blame and shame Israel. Instead of lamenting the dramatic decline of the Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem, where Christians face increasing social isolation and stigmatization, the Pope was provided a Potemkin Village view of Bethlehem. The impressive facade of smiling christian children was designed to hide the fact that Christians are being marginalized. For centuries Bethlehem was a Christian city comprising around 80% of the population as recently as 50 years ago. Today, however, it is less than 15% Christian, and that number continues to dwindle. Bethlehem is increasingly dominated by Sunni Muslims, some of whom exert great pressure on their Christian neighbors to leave. It seems to be the unspoken rule that “what happens to Christians in Bethlehem stays in Bethlehem.” Why did the Pope not hear those voices, or ask the right questions? Instead, he was directed to “pray” at the separation wall which successfully prevented and prevents terrorists to cross into Israel to murder Jews. In an act of ultimate chutzpa the Pope visited at the behest of his host, the Palestinian Authority, the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. In this camp over 14,000 Palestinians are forced to live as permanent refugees because if they would be integrated into mainstream Palestinian society they would loose their privileged UN refugee status. Subsequently, generations of Palestinian children grew up in poverty and learned to blame Israel for all of their misery. The Pope probably did not watch yesterday nights expose on Israel’s TV either depicting the explosive situation in the Jenin refugee camp. Jenin is a Palestinian city in the northern West Bank. It serves as the administrative center of the Jenin Governorate and is a major agricultural center for the surrounding towns. The city has a population of approximately 40,000 Palestinians, mostly Muslims. By Israel’s count, at least 28 suicide bombers were dispatched from the Jenin camp from 2000–2003 during the Second Intifada.Israeli army weekly Bamahane attributes at least 31 militant attacks, totaling 124 victims, to Jenin during the same period, more than any other city in the West Bank. Jenin is now under the administration of the Palestinian Authority but no PA official dares to enter the camp because otherwise they would get killed; or abducted, tortured and then killed. Jenin and the adjacent refugee camp is a hotbed for Hamas and the Islamic Jihad and the site of frequent clashed between Israeli or Palestinian Authority security forces with Hamas/Islamic Jihad armed militants. In the chilling Israeli TV expose an Arab speaking Israeli journalist interviewed militants and children as young as 12-years of age who insisted that they want to die as martyrs in fighting Jews or other infidels (mostly PA officials). I wish the Pope would have had a minute to address those children. But he couldn’t because he was busy participating in the Palestinian Authority dog and pony show. To top it all off the Pope visited the Temple Mount accompanied by the the Mufti of Jerusalem, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, of the Jordanian royal family, serving as the guardian of the holy places of Islam in Jerusalem and a representative of the Jordanian Waqf (Islamic trust). During the visit the Mufti of Jerusalem unleashed a tirade of accusations against Israel’s alleged occupation of the Temple Mount. The Mufti strongly condemned the Israeli occupation : “Your Holiness – he said – there can be no peace as long as there the occupation continues”. The Islamic leader also recalled that “from Gaza – believers cannot come to pray at this place which is the third holiest site in Islam”. He has asked the pontiff , as an internationally recognized authority , to take an interest in the fate of more than “5000 prisoners still in Israeli jails”. “We – he added – trust in the role you can play in favor of our people and the humanitarian and religious rights that have been signed by the international community”. His greeting was followed by a more moderate, but sorrowful tones, of the President of the Supreme Muslim Council. He also recalled the suffering of Palestinian communities, Muslim and Christian , under Israeli occupation . Among other things, these days , Israel is considering cutting off electricity supplies to the West Bank and East Jerusalem because of the Palestinian Authority’s enormous debt to the Israeli energy companies. The fear of some military personalities is that this economic issue could lead to frustration and violence.
When addressing the Mufti and other Arab dignitaries the Pope, to my surprise, stood his ground. warned against abusing the name of God through violence and called for mutual respect among believers of different faiths as brothers as sisters. He said Muslims, Jews and Christians must live the spiritual attitude of Abraham, practicing peace, justice and mercy. “May we learn to understand the sufferings of others!”. “May we work for peace and justice”; “may we respect and love one another as brothers and sisters” and “May no one abuse the name of God through violence!”
Before leaving Israel on an El Al plane he invited Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas to join him in Rome next month to pray for peace. Will this be the swan song indicating the end of the peace process? I hope not!