In the occupied territories there has been a process that cannot be defined with the usual terms of 'backwardness' or 'poverty', and which in reality has impeded the formation of productive forces and has undermined the economic potential of the population.
The severe social and economic conditions of the occupied territories have challenged the recently established Palestinian Authority and international donors alike. The impact of Israeli occupation cannot be fully understood from the perspective of either the paradigm of modernization or from the perspective of dependency. Instead, Israeli polices have represented a process of de-development through a series of measures that have precluded the formation of production forces and sought to dispossess the population of its political patrimony and economic potential.
One way in which this has been achieved has been through policies of expropriation and dispossession, including Israel's effort to exert control over water, land, and housing, as well as finance and expenditure policies which have extracted tax revenues but made no effort to encourage productive investment.
A second major set of policies could be termed integration and externalization. These policies have fostered the dependence of the West Bank and the Gaza strip on Israeli trade and employment. At the same time, Israeli regulations and restrictions have undercut both local industrial manufacturing and the agricultural export sector.
De-institutionalization represents the third and major category of these policies. These include efforts to weaken and fragment education, the banking system, local government, and the institutions of civic society. Israel exercises varying degrees of legal control in the Occupied Territories. Israel has no constitution; however, it has a Basic Law that provides for freedom of worship. The Israeli government generally respects this right in practice in the Occupied Territories.
Israel's strict closure policies have frequently restricted the ability of Palestinians to reach places of worship and practice their religion. The construction of a separation barrier by the government of Israel, particularly in and around East Jerusalem, has also severely limited access to mosques, churches, and other holy sites, and has seriously impeded the work of religious comunities that provide education, healthcare, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians.
Such impediments have not been exclusive to religious believers or to religious organizations, and at times the Israeli government has made efforts to lessen the impact on religious communities. The Israeli government confiscated land (usually offering limited compensation, which churches do not accept) belonging to several religious institutions to build its separation barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. However, according to the Israeli government, it sought to build the barrier on public lands where possible, and when private land was used it provided opportunities for compensation.
The separation barrier made it difficult for Bethlehem-area Christians to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and it made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Israeli side of the barrier, further fragmenting and dividing this small minority community. Foreign pilgrims have sometimes experienced difficulty in obtaining access to Christian holy sites in the West Bank because of the barrier and Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank. The barrier and its checkpoints have also impeded the movement of clergy between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregations between their homes and places of worship.
On November 15, 2005, Israel opened a new crossing terminal from Jerusalem into Bethlehem for tourists and non-tourists. After initial complaints of long lines, the Israeli government instituted new screening procedures and agreed to ease access into Bethlehem during the Christmas holiday, with restrictions eased from December 24 to January 19. For example, the PA reported 30,000 visitors to the Church of the Nativity for various Christmas celebrations on December 24-25 2005, the largest turnout since 2000.
It is understood that large-scale unemployment and underemployment cause sever damage to the social fabric of Palestinian society and threaten political stability. There are an estimated 20,000 new jobseekers each year in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. With one of the world's highest labor force growth rates (nearly 4 per cent), and with nearly half the population under 15 years of age, the Palestinian economy is unable to absorb many of those presently unemployed and is unlikely to accommodate the expected increase in the number of job-seekers in the years ahead.
The Israeli practices and collective punishments have crippled trade, agriculture, education, services and above all the tourism industry, thereby transforming the vast majority of our workers into jobless people. Unemployment in Bethlehem has soared to 60%. Tourism, once a major source of revenue to all peoples of the region, is dead and the Church of Nativity, the oldest church on earth, is desolated. Suffice to say that more than 38% of Bethlehemites live today under the poverty line, according to a study conducted by the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce. All of their savings have been drained. The cost of basic food for children such as milk and bread is out of the reach of most families. This situation has reflected dramatically on Bethlehem's citizens whose meagre budget depends basically on the tourism sector. Bethlehem today is said to be a town which is economically devastated, to employ a phrase used in a statement that was issued by the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce.
The economy of scale is adversely affected by the political situation; the unemployment rate is becoming greater with every sunset, leading citizens to being unable to provide the necessities of life such as bread and milk. Under such circumstances the new unemployed and especially male bread earners have to turn to any type of work that helps earn enough wages to secure food for their families; however, as long as the conditions in the main towns and cities of the Palestinian territories remain the same, even a daily job will be hard to find. These prevalent conditions are leading to a social disaster with ramifications extending beyond the lowering of living standards, and they are inducing malnutrition amongst children, a deterioration of general health, and are also negatively influencing the social structure and leading to social disorders such as the escalation of violence in families, psychological stress, and trauma.
Infrastructure development is intimately related to the development of every other economic and social sector. Roads, housing, water and sanitation, electricity and communication systems, hospitals, and schools all constitute foundations for the development of education, health care, industry, business and agriculture.
The natural increase in population, a result of high birth rates, low death rates as a result of improved health awareness and facilities, coupled with the influx of Diaspora Palestinians with the peace process, has created a population surge. The increase in population has put the price of land and the cost of housing at an all time high. Housing is at a premium and because the demand is high, the cost is also correspondingly high.
Israeli restrictions make it extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain building permits in more than 70 percent of the West Bank, where zoning is still under Israeli control. Limited PA control over zoning has increased demand for land in the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, resulting in higher prices and construction costs, as well as higher rent levels.
With demand so high, the prices are consequently high. The most common measurement for the relative cost of housing is the house price-to-income ratio, defined as the ratio of the median free-market price of a dwelling unit and the median annual wage, which is significantly higher than other (Middle Eastern) countries at a comparable level of development. The average person living in Palestine earns one tenth of the average annual earnings of an Israeli citizen and pays twice as much for housing in terms of price to income.
Different from other school systems such as the UNRWA and the public schools, the Latin Patriarchate schools are similar to other faith- based schools in that they encounter difficulties in sustaining quality education services at a time when:
No government subsidy for running and/or development costs exists in Palestine and Jordan; Schools operate within negative economic and social conditions in the population they serve; There is fragmentation and isolation amongst schools especially, in the Palestinian territories.
Without forgetting the other groups that live in the Holy Land, the Palestinian Christian Community, which represents close to 1.5% of the total population, is an integral part of the national, social and cultural identity of the Arab Palestinian people. Their presence throughout past centuries has shaped the living identity of the cities, towns and villages they reside in, as well as the social structure of daily life as they have coexisted with Muslims and Jews in a number of communities. By awareness and by birth, the Christian community is part and parcel of the national Palestinian cause, and thus shares the frustration of wider Palestinian society and its hope for a better future.
However, and given the religious particularity of the Christian community and the fact that mass immigration has rendered Christians a diminishing group, we are more vulnerable to social, political and economic instabilities.
Policies that have been purposely inflicted by the Israelis during the past 58 years, including closures, and repeated obstacles to freedom of worship and religious expression, have resulted in the uprooting of the traditional Christian community. To many of the younger generation, Jerusalem is close to being a myth, a biblical word for a city never seen. Rome seems closer.
Now, with the deployment of the Palestinian Authority into Palestinian governed areas, there is the risk, even though this is certainly unintentional, that the Christian community's sense of being a minority will grow greater.
A legacy of prolonged uprootedness and an inhibiting sense of being a minority is not a healthy way for people to live. The number of people standing in line for immigration visas to every country in the world is not the only indicator of this, nor is the number of divorces per year, nor is the increased incidence of delinquency among teenagers, drug abuse, violence to children and women, so on and so forth. Loss of faith, loss of hope, and idleness are the main adversaries to the nurturing of active, participative and productive community.
For years the Palestinian struggle for equity and justice in the West Bank and the Gaza strip has taken the form not only of popular resistance against the occupation but also of collective efforts to deliver, often free of charge, a range of relief and developmental services that are not provided by Israeli government.
Even today, more than thirteen years after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian non-governmental organizations still account for a considerable part of services in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, and they provide health care, education and training, agricultural extension, housing assistance, human rights and legal aid, charity/welfare, technical assistance and so on. They are run by church groups, charitable organizations, voluntary associations, women's committees and independents. Their diversity embodies a strong element of political pluralism and constitutes an important component of emerging civil society.
Ever since its establishment in 1846, the Latin Patriarchate has promoted the wellbeing of the Christian community and Palestinian society in general. Highlighting the need for a lasting and enduring peace, the Patriarchate, in co-ordination with other organizations, namely the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the Knights of Columbus, Church groups, international governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as individual benefactors, has been able to implement several programs that adopt a holistic approach to individual and community development. These programs include spiritual, educational, social, physiological, and economical programs that cater for, and are responsive to, the needs of the respective target communities.
In front of such a bleak situation what could we do? Prayer for peace in the Middle East; child sponsorship programs; church partnerships; pilgrimages to the Holy Land and advocacy to raise awareness are all valid means short term means - to alleviate the situation. On the other hand, and as a long term effort, our primary duty is to draw the attention of the world's political leaders to this grave situation as they are in the process of searching a common vision for peace.
This situation indeed which is a systematic violation of basic human rights and the provisions of international law is resulting in the elimination of hope and the dissemination of fear and despair on both sides of the barrier. Both nations are suffering. We as a church call upon the people of good well to put an end to these violations and to resort to international law in their quest for a just solution. Only a just solution, we believe, can bring peace in the Holy Land and revive hope in the hearts of its people.
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