Some 2 percent of the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza are Christians. Not so long ago they were roughly 15 percent of the Arab population. The rest are Muslims, all Sunnis. What explains the decline? Birth rates, of course. Christians are better educated than Muslims (all over the Middle East), and they know that if you want to raise a productive, truly loving, and educated family, you'd be wise to raise fewer children and give them all more attention.
The other reason that so many Christians have gradually abandoned Palestine is that their living among Muslims was a frightful experience. (Christians began decades back in deserting Iraq, too--at least, those who were not slaughtered.) Now, many Christian clergy have lined up against Israel, because they know that the Jews will not harm them. Moreover, they don't want to and have no reason to. The Christian authorities in the territories (and in Jerusalem) try to pacify the Muslims by joining the ugly chorus against Israel. Although they have been playing this appeasement game for nearly a century, it has done them no good.
I'm sure that the Hasidim of Israel, known for having large families with many children, would take offense at the notion that they don't have "productive, truly loving, and educated" families, but what's a little friendly fire when you've got Muslims to insult (they breed like rabbits, don't ya know?)?
While it is true that Palestinian Christians tend to be better educated and wealthier than their Muslim countrymen, the main reason that so many have fled their homeland is the same reason that so many educated, middle-class Muslim Palestinians have fled: Life under Israeli military occupation is unbearable.
Even as they struggle, many Christians in the West Bank strive for influence within the Palestinian Authority. A Christian holds one cabinet post in the Hamas-led government, seven are members of Parliament and others lead cities like Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala, which comprise a historic Christian enclave.
George Sa'adeh, deputy mayor of Bethlehem, said that despite occasional tension between Christians and Muslims, the groups are generally united in calling for more freedom of movement for Palestinians and a reduction in tension with the Israelis.
"All the people want peace, even Hamas," Sa'adeh said. "The people are frustrated. We must stop the killing, and I believe the United States has the power to make peace if it wants to make peace."
Peace and war are not abstract concepts for Sa'adeh, a Greek Orthodox Christian. One day in March 2003, when he was out shopping with his wife and two daughters, Israeli soldiers mistook his car for one carrying two fugitive terrorists.
They riddled it with machine-gun fire, wounding him and his 15-year-old daughter and killing his 12-year-old daughter, Christine.
Sitting in his office overlooking the Basilica of the Nativity, built 17 centuries ago on the site where tradition says Jesus was born, Sa'adeh took out a wallet photograph of a smiling Christine and recalled how an Israeli group of bereaved families reached out to comfort him.
"Talking about peace and ending the war takes a lot of faith and courage," he said. "As Jesus taught us, we must forgive. But when I call for peace, I also call for justice and an end to the [Israeli] occupation."
Sa'adeh and other Christians need a special pass from the Israeli government to leave the West Bank and visit their churches in Jerusalem. Nisreen Kunkar, who handles public relations for Beit Jala, has been unable to visit the home of her in-laws in Jerusalem, although she has been married for years.
Such obstructions, a number of Christians said, inflame tension in the West Bank and help persuade many of their religious brethren to emigrate.
Scholars and activists, both within Israel and without, have exhaustively documented the various methods by which Israel has brutalized Palestinian society through the occupation, and Israel's intention to provoke the exodus of those Palestinians who can afford to leave, the better educated, the more financially well-off, in other words, the very people with the knowledge, skills and capital necessary for the eventual creation of healthy, democratic Palestinian state. Israeli scholar Baruch Kimmerling has called this process politicide.
By politicide I mean a process that has, as its ultimate goal, the dissolution of the Palestinian people's existence as a legitimate social, political, and economic entity. This process may also but not necessarily include their partial or complete ethnic cleansing from the territory known as the Land of Israel.
Politicide is a process that covers a wide range of social, political, and military activities whose goal is to destroy the political and national existence of a whole community of people and thus deny it the possibility of self-determination. Murders, localized massacres, the elimination of leadership and elite groups, the physical destruction of public institutions and infrastructure, land colonization, starvation, social and political isolation, re-education, and partial ethnic cleansing are the major tools used to achieve this goal.
It is unfortunately true that Palestinian Christians have endured violence at the hands of Muslims in the wake of the pope's ill-phrased comments about Islam, but Peretz's argument that persecution by fellow Palestinians is more to blame for Christian emigration from Palestine than is Israel's forty-years-long military occupation is simply a non-starter.
That Peretz would float such an obviously preposterous claim, however, is not suprising in the least. Peretz is someone for whom the Israeli occupation basically does not exist (and when it does it's only as an unfortunate necessity for dealing with those savage Arab squatters who've inconveniently been living on Jewish land for the last thousand-plus years), for whom the only wrong Israel can possibly do is go too easy on those rotten Arabs, and who can be relied upon to immediately unleash spittle-flecked volleys of charges of anti-Semitism at even the slightest suggestion that Israeli troops shouldn't be able to gun down Palestinian teenagers in the streets and bulldoze their homes with impunity.