JERUSALEM — Holy Land Christians and people of other faiths are struggling to maintain a semblance of normalcy as violence between Israelis and Palestinians rages around them, leading them to wonder if this will result in another intifada.
George Kouz, whose family owns a store in the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, comes to work every day despite the dearth of tourists wrought by the violence.
“This should be high season, but business hasn’t been good since last summer’s war with Gaza, and, now again, business is bad,” Kouz, an Aramaic Christian, said in the shop, which sells both Christian and Jewish religious items and jewelry.
“Our work is seasonal, and our best months are September and October,” he said. “Jews come for the [high] holidays, and Europeans come here because the weather is so warm. They’re avoiding the Old City and Jerusalem altogether due to the violent unrest on Haram al Sharif,” which Jews call the Temple Mount.
During the past month, Palestinian Arabs have stabbed or shot several religious Jews, some fatally, in a series of attacks in the West Bank and Israel, and especially in East Jerusalem.
Earlier this month, Arabs stabbed to death two Orthodox Jews, including a father walking with his wife and two young children through the alleyways of the Old City. His critically injured wife survived.
During the past two weeks, Israeli security forces have killed more than two dozen Palestinians, at least 10 of them armed terrorists.
According to many Palestinians, the most recent wave of violence is being spurred by the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and fears that the Israeli government plans to assert sovereignty over part or all of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and third-holiest site in Islam.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently banned Israeli parliamentarians from visiting the Temple Mount after a visit by an ultranationalist Jewish minister sparked widespread Muslim rioting.
Under an agreement with the Muslim officials who control the Temple Mount, non-Muslims may visit the site but not pray there. Muslim officials insist the site is for Muslims only. In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Jews have “no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”
Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem confirmed that “Holy Land Christians are affected by the violence because they are Palestinians. They are submitted to fear, to closure and to the strike of shops and schools whenever strikes are declared,” he told the Register. “The more there is hatred, [the more] they are targeted [by Israeli security forces], because they are Palestinians and belong to the same people.”
Bishop Shomali also said Holy Land Christians fear that pilgrims will be afraid to travel to the Holy Land.
“Many Christians here will suffer,” he said, because a large percentage of Christians in Israel and the West Bank derive their income from religious tourism. Unemployment, coupled with the hardships posed by ongoing Palestinian-Israeli violence and the Israeli closure of the West Bank, has prompted many Christians to immigrate to countries in the West.
Today, Christians comprise less than 2% of the populations of Israel and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank.
Bishop Shomali said that any Israeli intention to change the “status quo” agreement on the Temple Mount “is not only an anti-Muslim, but also anti-Palestinian, action. It is true that it affects Muslims in priority, but Christians are also sensible to that change. The same can be said of the Cremisan Valley.”
Israel recently began construction on a separation wall in the valley, located on the seam line between Jerusalem and the West Bank, to keep out Palestinian terrorists. The land, expropriated from Christians, houses the Salesian Sisters’ convent and school, which serves some 400 pupils, as well as a monastery.
Once completed, the wall will separate the monastery from the convent and school, Bishop Shomali noted.
“The building of the wall and the isolation of Christian land is mainly anti-Christian, but it is also anti-Palestinian, and Muslims are sensitive to that,” he said.
Although Palestinian Christians are deeply angered by Israeli policies and take part in peaceful demonstrations, “Christians do not accept stabbing and shooting” Israelis, he insisted. “We are not alone. Many Muslims also reject that method. We are calling for calm and a negotiated solution to the conflict.”
While daily battles continue to rage between Palestinian rioters and Israeli security personnel, Lamis Farid, deputy head master at the Latin Patriarchate school in Ramallah in the West Bank, told the Register her staff have worked hard to maintain a sense of calm on the campus.
“Our school itself hasn’t been affected by the violence, although one of our teachers could not get to school because the roads were closed. We’re in the middle of the city, and the fighting is on the outskirts.”
Farid acknowledged, however, that the school’s children are more anxious than usual.
“They’re drawing pictures that depict violence. They say they don’t know what’s happening. We’ve been here before. It’s nothing new in this country.”
Father Norayr Kazazian, the principal of the Armenian school in Jerusalem, said his staff have been careful not to expose the students to the turmoil all around them. The school is located in the Old City, which is filled with unusually large numbers of Israeli police at the moment.
“We see the children’s anxieties when they see police or soldiers with big guns checking people” for IDs and weapons, he said. “It does have an influence, and not a good one. Some parents haven’t sent their children to school due to the situation. We’re not close to the [Al Aqsa] mosque, but we’re still affected.”
Father Kazazian emphasized that, within the school’s gates, staff members — Christians, Muslims and Jews — work as a close-knit team: “We work together very harmoniously. We leave politics outside.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.