What is going on in Israel and in Palestine?

By Tim Livesey

As with all questions relating to Israel and Palestine, the answer will depend on who you talk to. But if you were to address the question to a Christian in Jerusalem, on the West Bank or in Gaza, you might hear echoes of the following. 

Everything that many feared from an extreme right wing religious coalition government in Israel is coming to pass.  Fears are often imagined and prove unfounded.  Not this time. The Israeli political parties concerned didn’t hide their ambitions when they campaigned for election back in November last year.  They were entirely upfront, in advance of, and then following, the election, as they negotiated over who would get which ministerial role in the resulting coalition. 

The extreme religious parties that campaigned alongside Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, with the declared intent of forming a coalition, made no bones about a number of things.  The one we have heard most about was their intention to introduce legislation to curtail existing powers of the judiciary – the Supreme Court in particular – including to strike down legislation passed by Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset.  In the UK Parliament is sovereign.  The courts can interpret laws passed by Parliament.  They cannot strike them down.  It is this power the Netanyahu led coalition says it wants to bring to an end. Others see the reform as an assault on democracy and the rule of law.  Which is why we have witnessed the biggest upheaval in Israeli politics in a generation play out in recent weeks, with millions protesting the reforms on the street. 

However, if resistance to judicial reform is the big-ticket item for millions of Israelis, we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking this is the only, or even the most important, issue for the future of Israelis and Palestinians alike.  If you are Palestinian, including if you are Palestinian Israeli, there are many other issues to keep you awake at night.  One would be this tweet from the Israeli Prime Minister on the eve of forming his new government:   “These are the basic lines of the national government headed by me: The Jewish People have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlements in all parts of the Land of Israel – in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria [otherwise referred to as the’ Occupied West Bank’ – using internationally recognised terminology]”

What this means is that the very idea of an independent Palestine is, in the eyes of the current government, null and void.   Why, you might ask, is the international community, of which the UK is part, not pulling sharply on the alarm cord.  After all, there are already 700,000 Israelis settled and living, illegally under international law, in the West Bank. More settlement expansion not only kills off any possibility of Palestinian self-determination.  It double underscores a deliberate and, frankly long standing but un-declared, policy of what might be called ‘slow onset annexation’. 

Pending the outworking of this chilling political vision, violence in the West Bank has reached unprecedented levels.  So far this year more Palestinians (some 85 and rising) have been shot dead by Israel’s military than at the same point in any year since the end of the second intifada of 2000-2003, during which thousands died.  This is no surprise.  Before taking office the new government signalled its intention to grant immunity from prosecution to military personnel prosecuting Israel’s continuing fifty-five year old occupation of the West Bank.  The brutality of Israel’s response to any resistance to the occupation, even peaceful protest, is set to increase.  This means more deaths and even less hope of a just outcome to this long- standing conflict.  

So what about the slowly diminishing community of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza?  Once 10% of the population. Now less than 1%.  Well, of course, they are suffering. They experience the same feelings of depression, alienation, and increasing hopelessness, as their Muslim and, perhaps for different reasons, Jewish neighbours. Christians living in Jerusalem have traditionally felt greater protection from the worst pressures of the Occupation.  However, for some time now, most markedly in recent months, they are feeling specifically targeted – in effect actively persecuted – by extremist religious Jewish settler groups.  To date there have been seven serious incidents to date, contrasting with six in the whole of 2022. This is a disturbing development and Christian leaders have felt compelled to speak out. 

In a recent interview with the Associated Press the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, Archbishop Pizzaballa, warned that the new far-right government in Israel had made life worse for Christians in the birthplace of Christianity. Extremists were emboldened in attacks on property and people, including clergy. ‘The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new,’ he says.  ‘These people [extreme settler groups] feel they are protected…that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians.’

Christians in the Holy Land are as committed as anyone to the future of an independent Palestine, and a secure Israel within pre-1968 borders.  They (including Embrace partners) work tirelessly to serve the wider community, especially the most marginalised.  Christian schools, hospitals and other institutions contribute substantially more than their fair share to the education, health and wellbeing of the population at large.  More than half of NGOs providing basic services in Palestine are Christian.  

Christians are proud to be peacemakers, educators, and community bridge builders. They add generous, compassionate and Christ-like leaven to the mass of Palestinian and Israeli civil society.  But they are feeling increasingly threatened by ideological and religious extremists.  Sadly, the new Israeli government, rather than being a reassuring presence, is a cause for increased fear and uncertainty.  

So yes, we should be worried.  We really do need to pray for Jerusalem, and for the Holy Land and its people.  Because once again we are in a dangerous moment.  Love requires us to speak out and to act with justice and compassion, especially for the most vulnerable.  Siding with the strong against the weak is not the Christian way; as we have just been powerfully reminded in the celebration of our Easter liturgies.

Tim Livesey is CEO of Embrace the Middle East