As Israeli PM hails evangelical 'best friends,' a heartfelt cry from Bethlehem's mayor over the 'strangling' of Jesus' birthplace

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017. Netanyahu has repeatedly said that US evangelical Christians are Israel's 'best friends in the world'.Reuters

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday told a group of Christian media representatives that Israel has no better friend than the world's Christian communities. He was speaking at the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem, the first such event hosted by Israel.

The message he delivered has become something of a common theme since the election of Donald Trump, who relied heavily on support from white, conservative evangelicals, some of whom support Israel for a range of reasons varying from solidarity against Islamic fundamentalism in the region, to ideological Christian Zionism.

In July, Christian Today reported how Netanyahu told the annual conference of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) that Christian evangelicals were Israel's best friends in the world.

In a video address to the Washington gathering that was notable for the pointed absence of any reference to President Donald Trump or his administration's efforts in the region, Netanyahu said: 'When I say we have no greater friends than Christian supporters of Israel, I know you've always stood with us.'

To cheers, he told the crowd: 'You stand with us because you stand with yourselves, because we represent that common heritage of freedom that goes back thousands of years.'

And reaching a crescendo, he added: 'America has no better friend than Israel and Israel has no better friend than America. And Israel has no better friend in America than you.'

Perhaps most controversially of all, Netanyahu said: 'The only place where you have religious freedom guaranteed is Israel. The only place where Christian communities in the Middle East thrive, they grow, not only survive but they have a future. That place is Israel, because Israel guarantees religious freedom. Israel represents the freedom that we all cherish.'

Many, including the dwindling number of Palestinian Christians, would disagree.

Indeed, as Netanyahu addressed the Christian media summit yesterday, the respected Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz published an opinion piece by the new mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, directly contradicting the Israeli prime minister's caims, and questioning why American evangelicals are 'celebrating' Israeli policies which are 'strangling' the birthplace of Jesus.

That Bethlehem is indeed being 'strangled' by the wall, or 'separation barrier' that cuts through the West Bank and by the settlements deemed illegal under international law, is not in doubt (and indeed Christian Today used the word in a headline above a feature on the city last Christmas).

'There are no words to describe the incarceration of Jesus' birthplace, Bethlehem. It is enclosed by 18 illegal Israeli settlements, segregated road networks and infrastructures. Bethlehem's 2,000 years old contiguity with Jerusalem has been cut by a network of Israeli settlements and annexation, which also prevents the town from ever expanding further,' Salman wrote.

'Left with limited control over just 13 per cent of its governorate, Bethlehem is an example of what 50 years of Israeli occupation have meant for Palestine and Palestinians in general, and to the Christians of the Holy Land in particular.'

The Israeli-built separation barrier which cuts through the West Bank, including around Bethlehem.Reuters

Normally, the suspicion among Palestinian Christians is that the Israeli government discourages pilgrims to visit Bethlehem, because that is the point when a pilgrim's trip inevitably becomes political.

But as Salman says: 'Ironically, in a few days, significant numbers of Christian Evangelicals, mainly from the US, will come to celebrate those same Israeli policies strangling the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The Prime Minister's office has joined efforts with various agencies normalizing Israeli violations of international law, including the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the so-called 'Jerusalem Municipality', to bring in "Christian media" representatives. The conference, to be held in an Israeli hotel built on Palestinian, illegally confiscated land in Occupied East Jerusalem, includes a tour in support of the illegal wall which surrounds Bethlehem. They will also be taken to the lands of Beit Jala, to visit the illegal settlement of Gilo, thus supporting Israel's destruction of the Cremisan Valley and the dispossession of dozens of Palestinian Christian families.'

In an article which repeatedly made comparisons with apartheid in South Africa, Salman continued: 'This conference is not only an attempt to normalize the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but also part of the systematic Israeli strategy to exploit religion and holy texts as a political tool.'

He went on: 'As the newly elected mayor of Bethlehem I witness on a daily basis the effects of the blind support of Israel given by my Christian co-religionists. How fundamentalist theological positions are used to justify injustice. But no church worthy of its name should offer a theological smoke screen for the denial of our most basic rights as Palestinians.

'To those who choose to stand on the oppressor's side, I ask them to remember our origins as Christians, and to resurrect the universal message of hope born in a grotto in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Only when human dignity is respected and equal rights are granted, only when the Israeli occupation is over and Palestinians are able to achieve their full potential on their own land, will we be able to say that peace has returned to the land of peace.'

For anyone who has visited Bethlehem, while of course respecting Israel's absolute right to existence and indeed to security, it is indeed hard to understand the Christian mentality that supports the expansion of the settlements, not to mention the wall. After all, Catholic bishops who make an annual trip to the Holy Land take a very different approach to that of the evangelicals. 

Those who do venture to Bethlehem cannot avoid seeing the checkpoints and the wall erected by Israel supposedly to stop suicide bombers entering Jerusalem 10 km to the north, with detrimental effects on the everyday lives of ordinary Palestinians.

The majority of pilgrims and tourists who enter the city stay for just an hour or two, visiting the Church of the Nativity and driving out again on buses, usually organised by Israeli-run firms. 

For Palestinian ID holders, entry to Jerusalem remains restricted. Of those who are lucky enough to obtain an Israeli military permit, the vast majority are still restricted to certain hours and are forbidden from using a car.

Ultimately however, it is the growing settlements that increasingly act as the primary obstacle to a lasting agreement  between Israel and the Palestinians.

As they survey the scene, American evangelicals could do worse than to ask themselves, in the name of the Prince of Peace, do they really want a lasting peace in the region?