How Israel Targets Its Palestinian Christian Citizens

Coauthored by Mariam Farah

The highly politicized visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land has put a spotlight on Israeli-Palestinian tensions and religious freedom in Israel. And rightly so: In the last two months, violence against Palestinians in Israel has soared. Not a week has passed without arson or defacement of a church, mosque or Palestinian property in a wave of fanaticism against the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Israeli officials have turned a blind eye to these attacks, but we hope the Pope's visit drew the attention of the approximately one billion Catholics around the world. And of the 78 million Catholics living in the United States, a quarter of the population of the country whose military aid and political backing enable Israel to maintain its cruel control over the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967 along with its discrimination and human rights violations against Palestinians on both side of the green line and in exile.

We hail from different faiths but we have never believed that faith calls for anything other than respect of the other. And yet Israel uses faith as an argument for colonization and dispossession, for an apartheid-like regime that includes illegal Jewish-only settlements and roads, checkpoints in the Occupied Territories and a discriminatory marriage law for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, one of nearly 50 discriminatory laws.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently pushing legislation to introduce a new Basic Law to "legally anchor" Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people." The state already enacts numerous policies that discriminate against non-Jewish citizens; however, the implementation of this doctrine in Basic Law will make inequality permanent and legally upheld, despite Israel's attempts to present itself as a democratic state.

Israel and the Occupied Territories are not only home to Christianity's holiest sites, but also home to a significant Palestinian Christian population that can trace its history back to the time of Jesus.

Within Israel, about 20 percent of the total population is of Palestinian descent, of whom about 80 percent are Muslim, 11 percent are Christian, and 9 percent are Druze. Christians suffer from the same discrimination and marginalization facing the rest of the Palestinian community. They are subject to discrimination in employment, unequal municipal funding, physical threats of violence from police, under-funded educational systems, discrimination in housing rights, and political marginalization. Today, Christians are the fastest shrinking segment of Israel's population, in part due to these discriminatory policies.

Recently, the government has begun instituting policies that purport to "integrate" Christians, but that will in fact further marginalize them and perpetuate a hierarchy of race and religion.

Right-wing member of Knesset (MK) Yariv Levin is the main proponent of these policies. He claims that Christians are not Arab and that, because of this, they deserve "more rights" than Arabs. In February, the first of a series of laws spearheaded by MK Levin was passed in the Israeli parliament.

In recent years, the government has targeted Christian citizens for civic or military service, seeking to exploit the insecurities inherent in being a minority group. While the financial incentives to enlist are appealing to some young people, enlistment rates remain low due to a deep-seated belief in the Palestinian Christians' Arab Palestinian identity. Joining a military perpetrating crimes against the Palestinian people is viewed as immoral.

In April this year, Israel Army Radio announced that the Israeli military will be sending notices to all Christian youth to report to the nearest military office. Now young Palestinian Christians must reconcile the institutionalized discrimination they face on a daily basis with forced assimilation into the very structures that discriminate against them.

Israel's recent approach to Christians closely follows that applied to its Druze citizens, who have served in the Israeli military since 1956 and have had their own curriculum in a separate education system that emphasizes the Zionist narrative. Yet the state still confiscated many of the farms of this community forcing many Druze to enter the military tracks due to high rates of unemployment and poverty. Today, there are several anti-recruitment movements in the Druze community.

These Israeli policies are part of a larger colonial strategy of "divide and rule" within Israel itself. They attempt to foment internal artificial boundaries between otherwise cohesive populations. Instituting laws by which some ethnic or religious groups have more rights than others is directly opposed to democracy and equality.

Palestinian citizens do not want separate representation: We want equal representation and equal rights as well as recognition of our rights as an indigenous part of the Palestinian people as a whole. Pope Francis, a passionate advocate of human rights in so many spheres, spoke up for Palestinian rights for freedom and justice during his visit to the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. But those of us who are Palestinian citizens of Israel from diverse backgrounds have yet to hear his call for our rights to equality.

Nadim Nashif is Founder and Director of Baladna: The Association for Arab Youth and a Policy Member of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. Mariam Farah serves on the Board of Baladna.