The religious configuration in Palestine and Israel. A puzzle of confessions

Second of the articles in which Gerardo Ferrara, writer, historian and expert in history, politics and culture of the Middle East, approaches the complicated reality of religious diversity in Israel and Palestine. This second article explains the religious configuration in Palestine.

Gerardo Ferrara-October 17, 2023-Reading time: 7 minutes

A Palestinian family walks in front of a mosaic of the Holy Family near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem ©CNS photo/Debbie Hill

Palestine (State of Palestine or Palestinian National Authority, PNA) is a state with limited recognition, largely under Israeli occupation. Its claimed territories are the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem (including the Old City), both conquered by Jordan in 1948, with the founding of Israel, and the Gaza Strip, occupied by Egypt. During the Six-Day War (1967), Israel then seized all these areas, whose sovereignty was subsequently relinquished by both Jordan and Egypt in favor of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization).

The population of all of Palestine totals more than 5 million, of which about 3 million live in the West Bank and the rest in the Gaza Strip (where the majority of the population is made up of refugees from all of historic Palestine).

The head of state is de jure President Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, but the sharp and bloody divisions between the paramilitary Fatah movement, which he presides over together with the PLO (exponent of secular-based Arab nationalism) and Hamas, in power in Gaza after the 2007 elections, two years after the Israeli withdrawal from the Strip, have led to a de facto division not only geographically, but also politically, economically and socially between the two Palestinian territories.

The areas where Palestinian control is effective in the West Bank are called A (security control by Palestinians) and B (civilian control) and cover most of the western part, although they are crossed and interrupted in their territorial continuity by Jewish settlements, by roads under full Israeli control. A separation wall divides the West Bank from Israel, while the latter has full control in Area C, to the east, towards the Dead Sea and the Jordanian border. Area A constitutes 18% of the region, B 22% and C 60%. More than 99% of Area C is closed to Palestinians. Some 330,000 Israelis live in this area in settlements considered illegal by the UN and most foreign countries. 

The city of Jerusalem is fully controlled by Israel, although in the eastern part of the city, 60% of the population is Palestinian (permanent residents and non-citizens of Israel). 

Instead, the entire Gaza Strip is under Hamas control.

This status was reached following the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat, mediated by Bill Clinton's United States.

These agreements stipulated, on the Palestinian side, the "rejection of all violence and terrorism" and the recognition of the State of Israel within the 1967 borders, while, on the Israeli side, the recognition of the PLO as "representative of the Palestinian people".

The Oslo Accords provided for a five-year transitional period for the transfer of certain powers and responsibilities from Israel to the PNA, which culminated in further final negotiations interrupted by the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000.

From 2003 to 2005, the Israeli government initiated and completed a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza which raised considerable tensions in Israel (given the dismantling of several settlements and the transfer of settlers there) but also within the PNA, due to the conflict that broke out between Fatah and Hamas (an Islamic fundamentalist movement that does not accept the Oslo Accords and seeks the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state governed by sharia law throughout the Holy Land). As a result of this conflict, since 2007 Hamas controls the Gaza Strip (where it obtained the majority of votes in the 2006 legislative elections) and Fatah the West Bank.

The Gaza Strip, on the other hand, although internally controlled by Hamas, has been subject to a naval blockade since 2006 (although fishing is allowed), and a land and partial air blockade. The transit of goods by land is regulated at the border crossings (on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides) and it is Israel that supplies water and electricity (and can interrupt the supply).

Ethnicity and religion in Palestine

The vast majority of the population of Palestine (93%) is Sunni Muslim. Although there is a strong Christian minority (6% of the population), freedom of worship, especially in Gaza under Hamas rule, is limited.

Christians are members of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (Catholics), the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (the majority), the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and various other Eastern Catholic (such as the Maronite) and Orthodox Churches, or Protestant Churches.

In addition to the Druze, also present in Palestine, there exists near Nablus (ancient Sichem) a community of Samaritans (a Jewish sect already famous in the Gospels for being hated by the wider Jewish-Rabbinic community) which has its center of worship on Mount Garizim, on the outskirts of the city.

Christians in Gaza

In the world, Christians of Palestinian origin number more than one million, but in the Gaza Strip they number only 3,000 (before 2006 they were at least twice as many), that is, 0.7% of the population. About 90% belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, with Catholic (there is only one Catholic parish in the Strip, the Church of the Holy Family in the al-Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza City) and Baptist minorities.

With the rise of Hamas, the situation has become critical for local Christians, both because the small community is not protected from attacks by fundamentalist Muslims and because of the escalation, especially since 2008, of the conflict with Israel and the closure of the Strip by the Jewish state, which has increased the influence of fundamentalist movements on the young citizens of Gaza.

Nevertheless, all the Christian Churches are on the front line to help the mostly Muslim population in the daily difficulties caused by the Israeli blockade, which translate into widespread poverty and child malnutrition, bombing damage and ineffective health care.

The number of Christians in the Strip is constantly decreasing, first of all because of the Israeli blockade that prevents the import and export of most goods (except through the tunnels built and controlled by Hamas that pass under the border with Egypt and are used to smuggle goods and weapons, as we have unfortunately seen lately), but also because of the difficulty of freely professing one's faith.

In the West Bank

In the West Bank, 8% of the population is Christian. This figure includes East Jerusalem, which, however, was unilaterally annexed by Israel with a law passed by the Knesset in 1980.

The life of Christians in the West Bank is certainly much simpler than in Gaza: here it is possible for them to have their own places of worship, often clearly visible and part of the Palestinian landscape, and to freely celebrate their religious holidays.

There are neighborhoods and entire cities with a high percentage of Christian population (for example, Bethlehem, where the mayor is also a Christian), villages with a Christian majority (Beit-Sahour, near Bethlehem) or even totally Christian: this is the case of Taybeh, a village of 1,000 inhabitants. This is the case of Taybeh, a small village of 1,500 inhabitants not far from Jerusalem and Ramallah (it is the ancient Ephraim mentioned in the Gospels, where Jesus is said to have spent a few days before going to Jerusalem for the last Passover), famous for the production of the best-selling Palestinian beer, called Taybeh.

Palestinian Christians are very well integrated into the local social fabric. Most of them, in fact, consider themselves Palestinians or Arabs first, and only then Christians.

Although acts of discrimination or violence do occur, they are fairly isolated and, in any case, stigmatized by politicians and much of the Muslim population.

Christians no longer play a prominent role in Palestinian resistance movements (they had done so in the past, however, as mentioned in previous articles on the rise of Arab nationalism), but they continue to wield great economic power and exert considerable social and political influence. Also in Palestine, as in Israel, the role of Christians is predominant in education and research, with more than 70 Christian schools, mostly Catholic, attended mostly by Muslim students. Christians also have a higher level of education than the national average in Palestine, as well as a much higher employment rate.

Christians in the Holy Land: a presence in danger

Lately, the deep gap between the Christian presence in the West Bank and that in Gaza has widened considerably, although it certainly cannot be said that Christians in the West Bank are not an endangered minority.

In fact, in recent decades there has been a massive emigration of Christians from the Palestinian territories, and not only because of the community's vulnerability to the growing hostility of some fundamentalist Muslim fringes. 

In fact, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank have aggravated an economic crisis that the pandemic and the consequent absence of pilgrims, the source of livelihood for a considerable percentage of the Palestinian Christian population, have made even worse. Many Christians also suffer from a lack of freedom and security, in part due to the corruption of Palestinian institutions and political instability.

Most choose to emigrate to Jordan, the Gulf States, the United States, Canada and some European countries.

It must also be said that the emigration rate among Christians is higher than that of the Islamic population, as Christians generally belong to the urban middle class, who are also more likely to emigrate due to their higher level of education and language skills. International Christian organizations also offer assistance in leaving Palestine.

All of this, coupled with the significantly lower birth rate of Christians compared to their Muslim fellow citizens, puts the Christian presence in the Holy Land (both in the PNA and in Israel) at risk in the present and especially in the future. In fact, demographic data show that the Christian population was already declining during the British Mandate period, but with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this trend has intensified even further.

In recent years, the escalation of the conflict and, above all, the focus of the political authorities on both sides on the narrative of the conflict from a religious point of view, has worsened the situation, turning Christians into victims of resentment, discrimination and vandalism, both on Jewish and Islamic grounds, and in fact aggravating a situation that was already difficult to deal with.

In order to improve the situation of Christians, but also that of all peoples throughout the Holy Land, Jewish and Muslim religious fundamentalism, which is detrimental to all parties involved, must be ended as soon as possible.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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