Politics & Policy

A Star Rises in Bethlehem

This time, Hamas's.

This past Thursday, Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, following the Julian calendar, celebrated the feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the manifestation of Jesus to the nations and brings Bethlehem’s month-long Christmas festivities to an end. The pious are inspired by the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which recounts how wise men came from the East following a star that rose over Bethlehem. Two thousand years later, in Beit Lechem, the City of David, a different star is rising–one that portends Rachel’s “lamentation, weeping, and great mourning” rather than the Magi’s “exceeding great joy.”

Christmas scenes from Bethlehem notwithstanding–30,000 pilgrims from all over the world; the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas (or Abu Mazen), at midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity; processions of hundreds of Christian clergy–Bethlehem is no longer a Christian city. Muslims now vastly outnumber the departing Christians, and minarets outnumber church spires. At the present rate, in 15 years the only Christians in Bethlehem will be the holiday tourists. And just last year, the terrorist group Hamas won elections in the city.

On Wednesday, there will be elections in the area controlled by the PA, including in eastern Jerusalem. Earlier this month, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was emphatic that the U.S. sees “no reason why those elections should not proceed…in an atmosphere that is free from violence or coercion or intimidation.” This declaration came in response to a threat by Abu Mazen to cancel the poll if Israel prevented Arabs in eastern Jerusalem from voting. McCormack failed to explain how U.S. officials envision an atmosphere “free from violence or coercion or intimidation” with Hamas participating. So last week the Israeli cabinet, acting in the wake of U.S. pressure, voted to allow the poll to proceed, so long as armed groups–presumably including Hamas–were not on the ballot. A Hamas-ruled eastern Jerusalem would simply be unacceptable to Israel.

Indeed, if one wants to know what the situation would be like if Hamas took power, one need look no further than storied Bethlehem.

While the Palestinian political class has been careful to keep a Christian mayor in office, Victor Batarseh holds his job at the pleasure of the Hamas-dominated town council. Batarseh is hardly a moderate–he rose through the ranks of fellow-Christian George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), one of the “secular” terrorist groups in the PLO menagerie. When municipal elections were held in Bethlehem last May, the 71-year-old Batarseh, a physician like Habash, allied himself with Hamas against Abu Mazen’s Fatah faction. Capitalizing on general dissatisfaction with the rampant corruption of the geriatric Fatah, as well as thepopularity of its own dynamic social programs (which it uses to recruit participants in its deadlier activities), Hamas swept not only Bethlehem, but other cities in the West Bank, including Nablus and Jenin.

Might the exercise of political power have a moderating influence on Hamas extremists, as the starry-eyed hope? In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal just before Christmas, Bethlehem city councilor and local Hamas leader Hassan El-Masalmeh advocated a special tax on non-Muslim residents of the future Palestinian state. The tax, known as al-jeziya, is required by the Koran for dhimmis, second-class Jews and Christians. “We in Hamas intend to implement this tax someday,” he told an interviewer, “We say it openly–we welcome everyone to Palestine but only if they agree to live under our rules.”

If Hamas’s star continues to rise, paying a discriminatory tax may be the least of one’s problems. Provisions of Hamas’s “Covenant,” which the terrorist group has never repudiated, include these highlights:

‐The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. (Article 11)

‐There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by jihad. The initiatives, proposals, and international conferences are but a waste of time. (Article 13)

‐The Zionist invasion is a vicious invasion. Israel, Judaism and Jews challenge Islam and the Moslem people. “May the cowards never sleep.” (Article 28)

‐After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying. (Article 32)

Abu Mazen is surely free to stake his own political fortunes on the “maturing” of Hamas. But as we fight a war against terrorism, we ought to be more publicly understanding of Israel’s reluctance to sit down with such ill-starred company.

Michael I. Krauss, who just returned from Israel, is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law. J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University. Both are academic fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and visited Israel for the FDD earlier last year.

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