Category Archives: Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Inside Banksy’s The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem

Anonymous British street artist Banksy made headlines in October when his $1.4 million artwork Girl with Balloon self-destructed by passing through a shredder concealed in its frame at a London auction moments after it had been bought.

But in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, a much larger Banksy art project – a hotel boasting “the worst view in the world” – appears to be unexpectedly saving itself from similar, planned destruction.

When it opened in March last year, The Walled Off Hotel – hemmed in by the eight-metre-high concrete wall built by Israel to encage Bethlehem – was supposed to be operational for only a year. But nearly two years on, as I joined those staying in one of its nine Banksy-designed rooms, it was clearly going from strength to strength.

Originally, The Walled Off Hotel was intended as a temporary and provocative piece of installation art, turning the oppressive 700-kilometre-long wall that cuts through occupied Palestinian land into an improbable tourist attraction. Visitors drawn to Bethlehem by Banksy’s art – both inside the hotel and on the colossal wall outside – are given a brief, but potent, taste of Palestinian life in the shadow of Israel’s military infrastructure of confinement.

It proved, unexpectedly, so successful that it was soon competing as a top tourist attraction with the city’s traditional pilgrimage site, the reputed spot where Jesus was born, the Church of the Nativity. “The hotel has attracted 140,000 visitors – local Israelis, Palestinians, as well as internationals – since it opened,” says Wisam Salsa, the hotel’s Palestinian co-founder and manager. “It’s given a massive boost to the Palestinian tourism industry.”

Exception to Banksy’s rule

The Walled Off Hotel was effectively a follow-up to Banksy’s “Dismaland Bemusement Park”, created in the more familiar and safer setting of a British seaside resort. For five weeks, that installation in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, offered holidaymakers a dystopian version of a Disney-style amusement park, featuring a nuclear mushroom-cloud, medical experiments gone wrong, boat people trapped on the high seas and the Cinderella story told as a car crash.

But unlike Girl with Balloon and Dismaland, Banksy appears uncharacteristically reluctant to follow through with the destruction of his Bethlehem creation. Some 21 months later, it seems to have become a permanent feature of this small city’s tourist landscape.

Given that Banksy is notoriously elusive, it is difficult to be sure why he has made an exception for The Walled Off Hotel. But given his well-known sympathy for the Palestinian cause, a few reasons suggest themselves. One is that, were he to abandon the hotel, it would delight the Israeli military authorities. They would love to see The Walled Off Hotel disappear – and with it, a major reason to focus on a particularly ugly aspect of Israel’s occupation. In addition, dismantling the hotel might echo rather uncomfortably Israel’s long-standing policy of clearing Palestinians off their land – invariably to free-up space for Jewish settlement.

Israel strenuously claims the wall was built to aid security by keeping out Palestinian “terrorists”. But the wall’s path outside The Walled Off Hotel seals off Bethlehem from one of its major holy sites, Rachel’s Tomb, and has allowed Jewish religious extremists to take it over.

A rare success story

In sticking by the hotel, Banksy appears to have been influenced by Palestinian “sumud”, Arabic for steadfastness, a commitment to staying put in the face of Israeli pressure and aggression. But significantly, there is a practical consideration: The Walled Off Hotel has rapidly become a rare success story in the occupied territories, boosting the struggling Palestinian economy. That has occurred in spite of Israel’s best efforts to curb tourism to Bethlehem, including by making a trip through the wall and an Israeli checkpoint a time-consuming and discomfiting experience.

Israel’s attitude was highlighted last year when the interior ministry issued a directive to travel agencies warning them not to take groups of pilgrims into Bethlehem to stay overnight. After an outcry, the government ­relented, but the message was clear.

Salsa notes that The Walled Off Hotel has not only attracted a new kind of visitor to Bethlehem, but has also persuaded many to spend time in other parts of the occupied West Bank, too.

Salsa understands the importance of tourism personally. He was an out-of-work guide when mutual friends first introduced him to Banksy in 2005, shortly after the wall cutting off Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem had been completed. The city was economically dead, with tourists too fearful to visit its holy sites as armed uprisings raged across the occupied territories. The Second Intifada from 2000-2005 was the Palestinians’ response after Israel refused to grant them the viable state most observers had assumed was implicit in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s.

Banksy arrived in 2005 to spray-paint on what was then a largely pristine surface, creating a series of striking images. It unleashed a wave of local and foreign copycats. The wall in Bethlehem quickly became a giant canvas for artistic resistance, says Salsa.

Much later, in 2014, Banksy came up with the idea of the hotel. Salsa found a large residential building abandoned for more than a decade because of its proximity to the wall. In secret, The Walled Off was born. “It was a crazy spot for a hotel,” says Salsa. “It felt like divine intervention finding it. It was close to the main road from Jerusalem so no one could miss us.”

Palestinians’ reality

Importantly, the hotel was also in one of the few areas of Bethlehem inside “Area C”, parts of the West Bank classified in the temporary Oslo Accords as under full Israeli control. That meant the army could not bar Israelis from visiting. “Nowadays there are no channels open between Palestinians and Israelis. So The Walled Off Hotel is a rare space where Israelis can visit and taste the reality lived by Palestinians.

“True, Israelis mostly come to see the art. But they can’t help but learn a lot more while they are here.”

Salsa is happy that the Walled Off Hotel provides a good salary to 45 local employees and their families. His hope in setting up the hotel was to “encourage more tourists to stay in Bethlehem and for them to hear our story, our voice”.

But Banksy’s grander vision had been fully vindicated, he says. “The Walled Off Hotel gives tourists an experience of our reality.

“But it also emphasises other, creative ways to struggle and speak up. It offers art as a model of resistance.

“The hotel magnifies the Palestinian’s voice. And it makes the world hear us in a way that doesn’t depend on either us or the Israelis suffering more casualties.”

Global impact

The hotel’s continuing impact was underscored last month when it was featured for the first time at the Palestinian stand at the annual World Travel Market in London, the largest tourism trade show in the world. The event attracts 50,000 travel agents, who conduct more than $4 billion in deals over the course of the show.

Banksy had announced beforehand that he would bring a replica of one of his artworks on the wall just outside the Bethlehem hotel: cherubs trying to prise open two concrete slabs with a crowbar. He also promised a limited-edition poster showing children using one of Israel’s military watchtowers as a fairground ride. A slogan underneath reads: “Visit historic Palestine. The Israeli army liked it so much they never left!” As a result, there was a stampede to the Palestinian stand, one of the smallest, that caught the show’s organisers by surprise.

Rula Maayah, the Palestinian tourism minister, praised Banksy for changing the image of Palestinian tourism by diverting younger people into the West Bank, often during a visit to Israel. “He promotes Palestine and focuses on the occupation, but at the same time he is talking about the beauty of Palestine,” she said.

At the Walled Off Hotel, however, Israel has made it much harder to see the beauty. Most windows provide little more than a view of the wall, which dwarfs in both height and length the Berlin Wall to which it is most often compared. That is all part of the Walled Off “experience” that now attracts not only wealthier visitors keen to stay in one the hotel’s rooms, but a much larger audience of day trippers.

So successful has the Walled Off Hotel proved in such a short space of time that even some locals concede it upstages the Church of the Nativity – at least for a proportion of visitors. A local taxi driver who was guiding two French sisters along the wall outside the hotel said many independent tourists now prioritised it ahead of the church.

Only wanting to be identified as Nasser, he said: “We may not know who Banksy is, but the truth is, he has done us a huge favour with this hotel and his art.”

Sanctuary in a police state

If Dismaland created a dystopian amusement park in the midst of a fun-filled seaside resort, the Walled Off Hotel offers a small sanctuary of serenity – even if a politically charged one – in surroundings that look more like a post-apocalyptic police state.

Along the top of the wall, there are innumerable surveillance cameras, as well as looming watchtowers, where ever-present Israeli soldiers remain out of view behind darkened glass. They can emerge unexpectedly, usually to make raids on the homes of unsuspecting Palestinians.

When I made a trip to the Walled Off in October, I parked outside to find half a dozen armed Israeli soldiers on top of the hotel’s flat roof. When one waved to me, I was left wondering whether I had been caught up in another of Banksy’s famous art stunts. I hadn’t. They were real – there to watch over Jewish extremists celebrating a religious holiday nearby at Rachel’s Tomb.

The hotel’s lobby, though not the rooms, are readily accessible to the public. It is conceived as a puzzling mixture: part cheeky homage to the contrived gentility of British colonial life, part chaotic exhibition space for Banksy’s subversive street art. Visitors can enjoy a British cream tea, served in the finest china, sitting under a number of Israeli surveillance cameras wall-mounted like hunting trophies or alongside a portrait of Jesus with the red dot of a marksman’s laser-beam on his forehead.

A history of resistance

The lobby leads to a museum that is probably the most comprehensive ever to document Israel’s various methods of colonisation and control over Palestinians, and their history of resistance.

At its entrance sits a dummy of Lord Balfour, the foreign secretary who 101 years ago initiated Britain’s sponsorship of Palestine’s colonisation. He issued the infamous Balfour Declaration promising the Palestinians’ homeland to the Jewish people. Press a button and Balfour jerks into life to furiously sign the declaration on his desk. Upstairs is a large gallery exhibiting some of the best of Palestinian art, and the hotel reception organises twice-daily tours of the wall.

Entry to the rooms is hidden behind a secret door, disguised as a bookcase. Guests need to wave a room key, shaped like a section of the wall, in front of a small statue of Venus that makes her breasts glow red and the door open.

A stairway leads to the second and third floors, where the landings are decorated with more fading colonial splendour and Banksy art. Kitsch paintings of boats, landscapes and vases of flowers are hidden behind tight metal gauze of the kind Israel uses to protect its military Jeeps from stone-throwers.

A permanent “Sorry – out of service” sign hangs from a lift, its half-open doors revealing that it is, in fact, walled up.

No mementos

Although the rooms are designed thematically by Banksy, only a few contain original artworks, most significantly in the Presidential Suite.

Hotels may be used to customers taking shampoos and soaps, even the odd towel, as mementos of their stay. But at the Walled Off, the stakes are a little higher. Guests are issued with an inventory they must sign on departing, declaring that they have not pilfered any art from their room. But it is the wall itself that is the dominant presence, towering over guests as they come and go, trapping them in a narrow space between the hotel entrance and an expanse of solid grey.

A proportion visit the neighbouring graffiti shop, Wall Mart, where they can get help on how to leave their mark on the concrete. Most of the casual graffiti is short-lived, with space regularly cleared so that new visitors can scrawl their messages and use art as a tool of resistance.

Protest pieces

Banksy’s better-known artworks, however, are saved from the spray-paint pandemonium elsewhere.

The crowbar-armed cherubs he brought to London were painted in time for Christmas last year, when he recruited film director Danny Boyle – of Slumdog Millionaire fame – to stage an alternative nativity play for local families in the hotel car park. The “Alternativity”, featuring a real donkey and real snow produced by a machine on the Walled Off’s roof, became a BBC documentary. Banksy had once again found a way to persuade prime-time TV to shine a light on Israel’s oppressive wall.

Another artwork is his “Er sorry”, a leftover from the Walled Off’s “apologetic street party” of November last year, marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration’s signing. Children from two neighbouring refugee camps were invited to wear Union-Jack crash helmets and wave charred British flags. A person dressed as Queen Elizabeth II unveiled “Er Sorry” stencilled into the wall. It served both as a hesitant apology on behalf of Britain and as a play on the initials of the Queen’s official Latin title, Elizabeth Regina.

The event, however, illustrated that Banksy’s subversive message, directed chiefly at western audiences, does not always translate well to sections of the local Palestinian population. The party was hijacked by local activists who stuck a Palestinian flag into the Union Jack-adorned cake and chanted “Free Palestine”.

Is this ‘war tourism’?

Salsa outright rejects claims from some locals and foreign critics that the hotel is exploiting Palestinian misery and is an example of “war tourism”.

He points out: “The Balfour party got the media interested in a story they probably would not have covered otherwise, because it lacked violence and bloodshed.”

He adds that the area of Bethlehem in which the Walled Off is located would have been killed off by the wall were it not for Banksy investing his own money and time in the project. As well as the staff, it has brought work to tour guides, taxi drivers, neighbouring and cheaper hotels, shops and petrol stations. “That is a very important form of resistance,” he says.

It is also a rare example of Palestinians reclaiming land from the Israeli army. On the other side of the wall there had been a large army camp until the hotel started drawing significant numbers of visitors.

“The army didn’t like lots of tourists taking pictures nearby, so they moved further away, out of sight.”

Eternal memories

Canadian tourist Mike Seleski, 30, visited the hotel to see Banksy’s art before standing in front of the wall. He said he had heard about the Walled Off from an Israeli he befriended in Vietnam during a year of travelling.

This was a detour from his stay in Israel – his only stop in the occupied territories. “I don’t like the usual tourist experiences,” he said. “It is important to hear the other side of the story when you travel.”

In every one of the 32 countries he has visited, he has stood to be photographed before a famous local spot holding a cardboard sign with words to reassure his worried mother: “Mum – I’m OK.”

In Bethlehem, he said it was obvious he’d take the photo in front of Banksy’s art on the wall, rather than the Church of the Nativity. “You see the wall on TV and forget about it. You get on with your life. But when you stand here, you realise Palestinians don’t have a choice. They simply can’t ignore it.”

• First published at The National

Israel wages a New War of Attrition in Jerusalem

Czech president Milos Zeman offered Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist government a fillip during his visit to Israel last week. He inaugurated a cultural and trade centre, Czech House, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

At the opening, he expressed hope it would serve as a precursor to his country relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. If so, the Czech Republic would become the first European state to follow US President Donald Trump’s lead in moving the US embassy in May.

It is this kind of endorsement that, of late, has emboldened Mr Netanyahu’s government, the Israeli courts, Jerusalem officials and settler organisations to step up their combined assault on Palestinians in the Old City and its surrounding neighbourhoods.

Israel has never hidden its ambition to seize control of East Jerusalem, Palestinian territory it occupied in 1967 and then annexed, as a way of preventing a viable Palestinian state from emerging.

Israel immediately began building an arc of Jewish settlements on Jerusalem’s eastern flank to seal off its Palestinian residents from their political hinterland, the West Bank.

More than a decade ago, it consolidated its domination with a mammoth concrete wall that cut through East Jerusalem. The aim was to seal off densely populated Palestinian neighbourhoods on the far side, ensuring the most prized and vulnerable areas – the Old City and its environs – could be more easily colonised, or “Judaised”, as Israel terms it.

This area, the heart of Jerusalem, is where magnificent holy places such as the Al Aqsa mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are to be found.

Under cover of the 1967 war, Israel ethnically cleansed many hundreds of Palestinians living near the Western Wall, a retaining wall of the elevated Al Aqsa compound that is venerated in Judaism. Since then, Israeli leaders have grown ever hungrier for control of the compound itself, which they believe is built over two long-lost Jewish temples.

Israel has forced the compound’s Muslim authorities to allow Jews to visit in record numbers, even though most wish to see the mosque replaced with a third Jewish temple. Meanwhile, Israel has severely limited the numbers of Palestinians who can reach the holy site.

Until now, Israel had mostly moved with stealth, making changes gradually so they rarely risked inflaming the Arab world or provoking western reaction. But after Mr Trump’s embassy move, a new Israeli confidence is tangible.

On four fronts, Israel has demonstrated its assertive new mood. First, with the help of ever-more compliant Israeli courts, it has intensified efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in the Old City and just outside its historic walls.

Last month, the supreme court handed down a ruling that sanctions the eviction of 700 Palestinians from Silwan, a dense neighbourhood on a hillside below Al Aqsa. Ateret Cohanim, a settler organisation backed by government-subsidised armed guards, is now poised to take over the centre of Silwan.

It will mean more Israeli security and police protecting the settler population and more city officials enforcing prejudicial planning rules against Palestinians. The inevitable protests will justify more arrests of Palestinians, including children. This is how bureacratic ethnic cleansing works.

The supreme court also rejected an appeal against a Palestinian family’s eviction from Sheikh Jarrah, another key neighbourhood near the Old City. The decision opens the way to expelling dozens more families.

B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, characterised these rulings as “sanctioning the broadest move to dispossess Palestinians since 1967”.

At the same time, Israel’s parliament approved a law to accelerate the settler takeover.

Over many years, Israel created a series of national parks around the Old City on the pretext of preserving “green areas”. Some hem in Palestinian neighbourhoods to stop their expansion while others were declared on the land of existing Palestinian homes to justify expelling the occupants.

Now the parliament has reversed course. The new law, drafted by another settler group, Elad, will allow house-building in national parks, but only for Jews.

Elad’s immediate aim is to bolster the settler presence in Silwan, where it has overseen a national park next to Al Aqsa. Archaeology has been co-opted to supposedly prove the area was once ruled by King David while thousands of years of subsequent history, most especially the current Palestinian presence, are erased.

Elad’s activities include excavating under Palestinian homes, weakening their foundations.

A massive new Jewish history-themed visitor centre will dominate Silwan’s entrance. Completing the project is a $55 million cable car, designed to carry thousands of tourists an hour over Silwan and other neighbourhoods, rendering the Palestinian inhabitants invisible as visitors are delivered effortlessly to the Western Wall without ever having to encounter them.

The settlers have their own underhand methods. With the authorities’ connivance, they have forged documents to seize Palestinian homes closest to Al Aqsa. In other cases, the settlers have recruited Arab collaborators to dupe other Palestinians into selling their homes.

Once they gain a foothold, the settlers typically turn the appropriated home into an armed compound. Noise blares out into the early hours, Palestinian neighbours are subjected to regular police raids and excrement is left in their doorways.

After the recent sale to settlers of a home strategically located in the Old City’s Muslim quarter, the Palestinian Authority set up a commission of inquiry to investigate. But the PA is near-powerless to stop this looting after Israel passed a law in 1995 denying it any role in Jerusalem.

The same measure is now being vigorously enforced against the few residents trying to stop the settler banditry.

Adnan Ghaith, Jerusalem’s governor and a Silwan resident, was arrested last week for a second time and banned from entering the West Bank and meeting PA officials. Adnan Husseini, the Palestinian minister for Jerusalem, is under a six-month travel ban by Israel.

Last week dozens of Palestinians were arrested in Jerusalem, accused of working for the PA to stop house sales to the settlers.

It is a quiet campaign of attrition, designed to wear down Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents. The hope is that they will eventually despair and relocate to the city’s distant suburbs outside the wall or into the West Bank.

What Palestinians in Jerusalem urgently need is a reason for hope – and a clear signal that other countries will not join the US in abandoning them.

• First published in the National

Money, Not Protection of Palestinian Christians, Was at the Root of Holy Sepulchre Protest

It was a protest long overdue – and one that produced rapid results.

On Sunday, for the first time in living memory, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre slammed shut its doors to worshippers and tourists. In justifying the closure of the site where it is believed Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, Church leaders accused Israel of launching a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land”.

By Wednesday the church had reopened after Israel, bombarded with bad publicity, appeared to climb down.

Shuttering the church had threatened economic damage too. More than a quarter of Israel’s nearly 4 million visitors each year are Christian pilgrims. They and many other tourists come primarily to follow in the footsteps of Jesus – and the Holy Sepulchre is top of their sightseeing list.

The churches are right that the survival of a meaningful Palestinian Christian presence in the Holy Land hangs in the balance. Christians now comprise just 10 per cent of the large Palestinian minority in Israel – or about 2 per cent of Israel’s total population.

In the Palestinian territories, which are under belligerent Israeli occupation, Christian numbers have similarly plummeted.

But however serious the problem, the joint statement from Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic leaders was only tangentially concerned with the fate of this local community of believers. The protest was really about protecting the churches’ profits from real-estate and investment deals.

Power of evangelicals

The Christians of the Holy Land are overwhelmingly Palestinian, while the churches speaking on their behalf are overwhelmingly foreign. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Vatican are vast enterprises that are as concerned with their commercial viability and influence on the global stage as they are about the spiritual needs of any specific flock.

And nowhere is that fact more obvious and telling than in the cradle of the Christian faith – today split between Israel and the fragments of an embryonic Palestinian state.

The churches have long had to navigate a complex political game in the Middle East with Israel, the region’s key power-broker, and with Israel’s patron in Washington.

That task has grown more daunting in recent years, as Christian evangelical influence has come to dominate politics in the United States. Most US evangelicals are far more interested in “end-time” prophecies that require unthinking support for Israel and illegal Jewish settlements than they are in preserving a 2,000-year-old local Christian tradition.

The rising power of the evangelicals was exemplified in Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in late 2016, and his recent decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, terminating already frail hopes of a two-state solution.

Christian exodus

These trends are simply accelerating a long-standing process in which Palestinian Christians, whether in Israel or under occupation, are fleeing the Holy Land.

Confined to overcrowded ghettoes by Israel, starved of economic and social opportunities, and victims like other Palestinians of trigger-happy Israeli security forces, many have tapped overseas networks of Christians to re-establish their lives in Europe or North America.

Notably, however, it was not this prolonged exodus that prompted the churches to close the doors of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, or the Nativity Church in Bethlehem.

No Catholic custodian or Greek patriarch has dared to take such a decisive and bold stance in solidarity with the Holy Land’s “living stones” – Palestine’s Christians.

‘Charade’ protest

Whatever the public relations spin, the Holy Sepulchre was shuttered chiefly because the churches’ business interests were in jeopardy.

That was why Aleef Sabbagh, a Palestinian member of the Orthodox Central Council that for many months has been trying to oust their Greek overlord, Patriarch Theophilos III, called the protest a “charade”.

He noted that local Christians had long demanded the closure of the Holy Sepulchre to protest Israeli policies but had always been overruled by church leaders.

The church did not shut during the second intifada, when Palestinians were being killed in large numbers, nor during Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza.

Business interests?

When the statement from the heads of the churches angrily denounced Israel’s break with the “status quo”, they meant a financial status quo – what they termed their “rights and privileges” – that has chiefly benefitted the clerics of Italy and Greece.

At the heart of the stand-off with Israel were two issues that have incensed church leaders.

One was a recent decision by the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, to end the churches’ long-standing exemption from paying municipal taxes on their properties. Given the churches’ vast land holdings, the Jerusalem municipality hoped to collect more than $180m in back taxes.

The other concern was draconian legislation the Israeli government had drafted to seize properties that the churches – chiefly the Greek Orthodox Patriarch – had been leasing at knockdown prices to private Israeli developers and settler groups.

Churches ‘squeezed’

Despite the ostensible climbdown this week, Israel has not actually abandoned either of these policies. According to Israeli media, they have been “postponed”. History suggests that the Israeli authorities will simply wait for a better opportunity, or find a different route, to arrive at the same destination.

Israel’s long-standing approach has been to intimidate the Churches by all means possible. At different times it has frozen clerical work visas, and refused or delayed approval of senior appointments, including that of the Greek Orthodox patriarch himself. Israel regularly obstructs planning permits for church property. Meanwhile, far-right groups close to the governing coalition menace clergy in the streets and vandalise church property under cover of dark.

The latest efforts to financially “squeeze” the churches were designed to intensify the intimidation, stoking their debts to further weaken their standing. That would have been bad news for Palestinians, making the churches even more submissive in their dealings with Israel.

It would also have risked fuelling the sell-off of more Church land – to Israel – to pay off existing debts and avoid incurring future ones. Palestinians living on those lands, especially in Jerusalem, would then have been at Israel’s mercy.

Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian archbishop in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, has rightly warned that Israel’s long-standing goal is to “empty” Jerusalem of its Palestinians.

Pandora’s box

Nonetheless, the foreign Christian leaderships are at least in part to blame for opening up a Pandora’s box on land matters in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

They have treated their extensive holdings, much of it land and property entrusted to them by Palestinian Christians and overseas pilgrims, as chips in a game of real-estate poker. Israel has been looking for a chance to raise the stakes.

The tax exemption was derived from the charitable status of the churches’ spiritual mission and their outreach work with Palestinian communities that included the provision of schools and hospitals.

But increasingly the churches have downgraded their charitable works and diversified into other, more clearly commercial ventures, such as shops, offices and restaurants. Pilgrimage hostels were redeveloped into well-appointed and profitable hotels.

Part of the money was then siphoned off to the mother countries rather then reinvested in strengthening local Palestinian communities.

Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox Church has been cashing in its holdings in Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank, selling long-term leases, and in some cases the title deeds, on these lands to private Israeli developers and settler organisations.

According to the Orthodox Central Council, real estate deals over the past decade may have earned the Greek Patriarchate more than $100m. Most local Christians are wondering where all that money went. Their communities certainly haven’t seen it.

Selling to settlers

Israel was squarely behind the transactions when the church was selling lands on which Palestinian families lived. Settlers, rather than the churches, did the dirty work of carrying out evictions.

But then the churches got greedier still. They started selling future leases on lands in West Jerusalem that had housed Israeli Jews since the 1950s. The investors are now preparing to turf out these Jews from their homes too, so that the prime real-estate locations can be redeveloped more profitably.

The Israeli government was enthusiastic about the evictions of Palestinian Christians, but has drawn a thick red line at the eviction of Jews. That provided the impetus for the new legislation to let Israel seize lands and properties leased by the churches.

The bill may have been shelved temporarily, but it or something similar will resurface because the problem it addresses has not gone away.

Betrayal of Muslims

In their protest statement, the churches not only ignored their years of unthinking collusion with Israel against Palestinian Christians, but also betrayed any lingering solidarity with Palestinian Muslims.

They suggested that Christians had been singled out for attack by what they termed Israel’s “unprecedented” policies targeting their financial interests. They added: “This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.”

In fact, the churches have been handled with kid gloves compared to the treatment of Palestinian Muslims and their religious institutions since 1948.

Christian endowment land may be under threat now, but almost all properties in a similar endowment for Muslims – the Waqf – were seized by Israel at the Jewish state’s birth. Muslim communities lost these lands and properties – in effect, their welfare net – 70 years ago.

Israel’s free hand

The fact is Palestinian Christians were long ago abandoned by their churches, which preferred to avoid a serious clash with Israel that would harm their larger interests.

That has left Israel with a relatively free had to act against Palestinian communities. Most recently it has been waging a relentless war of financial attrition against Christian-founded schools and hospitals – two key resources for Palestinian communities – in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem. The assault has barely registered with the Church leaderships.

Sensing its upper hand, Israel has sought to make Palestinian Christians in Israel more dependent on the state, rather than the Churches, in an effort to pressure them gradually into becoming US-style Christian Zionists.

It has established a new classification of nationality in Israel – “Aramaean” – to replace Palestinian Christians’ existing, more inclusive “Arab” nationality. The cultivation of a hardline Christian nationalism is intended to sow tensions with Palestinian Muslims.

At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a campaign to pressure Palestinian Christians into serving in the Israeli army, with the intention of weakening a unifying Palestinian nationalism and physically pitting Palestinian Christians against Palestinian Muslims.

Close the doors again

These measures have so far been strenuously resisted by most Palestinian Christians, but that is no thanks to the Vatican or the Greek Patriarchate.

These foreign leaderships are culpable for their casual neglect of the Palestinian cause, their slash-and-burn policies towards local Christians, and their special pleading.

There were plenty of opportunities – more honorable ones – over the past decade to shut the Holy Land’s major Christian pilgrimage sites in protest.

The cause should not have been about safeguarding business interests, but about focusing global Christian attention on the incremental destruction of indigenous Palestinian communities, Christian and Muslim alike.

The churches have seen how effective closing the Holy Sepulchre can be. It is time to close the church’s doors again – and this time for the right reasons.

• First published in Middle East Eye.