In a long interview with Egyptian ONTV Sept. 1, Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association, appeared to ridicule Palestinian Christians. Almost a week later, on Sept. 6, Rajoub insisted in an interview on Al-Quds TV that when he referred to the “Merry Christmas people,” he was merely being jovial. He claimed that he had often used the term and that no one had ever complained about it.
Many Palestinian Christians, including Atallah Hanna, a Greek Orthodox archbishop of Sebastia, weren't laughing and demanded an apology. After initially hesitating, Rajoub apologized on Palestine TV Sept. 7 after a meeting in Ramallah with Catholic bishops who accepted the apology and asked that the incident be forgotten. Regardless, the episode has left a bad taste among a Palestinian community revealed to be fragile.
The context of Rajoub's utterance was another reason it upset so many people. Talking about the 2012 municipal elections, Rajoub complained in the hour-long ONTV interview (later rebroadcast on Palestinian TV) that Palestinian Christians — or as he called them in that instance, the “Merry Christmas people” — had voted for Hamas candidates in the West Bank. The criticism was not taken lightly, with many noting that in elections, Palestinian Christians, like Palestinian Muslims, have the right to choose whomever they want and not have it used against them.
Mohammad Baraka, a former member of the Knesset and the head of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, had called on Rajoub to apologize Sept. 5. Baraka said that Rajoub's words, because they were rebroadcast without editing on Palestine TV, appeared to have been supported by the Palestinian government.
Hanna, angered by Rajoub, posted a statement Sept. 3 on his Facebook page that was republished on many local websites: “Palestinian Christians are not the 'Merry Christmas people,' but we are the people of the first church, which sent its Christian message from Palestine to the world. We are proud of our Eastern Christian origin, whose light came from the Holy Land and spread to the entire world.”
Amid the widespread criticism of Rajoub, a number of Palestinians came to his defense, claiming that they know him and that he is not sectarian or racist. Sami Awad, the director of the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, told Al-Monitor that Palestinians should not fall into what he called “a trap,” saying that Palestinians have become overly sensitive to any somewhat provocative or challenging statement.
“In the face of not being able to address the bigger challenges that we, as Palestinians face, and in the continuous failure of the leadership to provide real solutions to these challenges, we begin to nitpick at each other,” he said. “The Palestinian community, both Christian and Muslim, needs to be bigger than falling into such traps.”
Sani Meo, the publisher of the magazine “This Week in Palestine,” told Al-Monitor that Christians ought to have more cultural resistance. “It was a faux pas on his [Rajoub's] part, but it didn't warrant all this fuss,” he said. “I would have liked to have seen that fierce reaction toward blatant Israeli racist smearing.”
Meo conceded that what he called “Rajoub-gate” had exposed flaws and weaknesses in Palestinian society, stating, “I thought we were beyond such issues and because of this, I am very disappointed.”
Bishara Awad, the founder and president emeritus of the Bethlehem Bible College, also defended Rajoub. “Rajoub is known to us,” he wrote in an email to Al-Monitor. “I would not take his words as being against Christians in any way or take what he said negatively in any way.”
Jamal Dajani, the director of strategic communications in the Palestinian prime minister's office, told Al-Monitor that the idea of labeling people is unacceptable. “Before we start labeling people as Christians or Muslims, we need to remember that we are all Palestinians, and when we stray from this belief, we will lose our identity,” he said.
Palestinian Christians — who, in the first half of the 20th century, represented roughly 20% of the population of Palestine — have dwindled in numbers in recent years. Today, Palestinian Christians in the West Bank total a mere 50,000, while some 150,000 Arab citizens of Israel are Christians. The largest number of Palestinian Christian emigres lives in the Americas, mostly in Latin America, and hold high positions in government and in business.
Palestinian Christians played a major role in the development of modern Palestinian nationalism, among them George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, who founded left-wing factions in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Kamal Nasser, a Christian killed in 1973 by the Israelis, was a leader in the Fatah movement. Palestinian Christians have represented the PLO around the world, including Manuel Hassassian, the head of the Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom, and Naim Khader, the PLO representative to Belgium who was assassinated in 1981 by the Abu Nidal Organization. Afif Safieh, the former head of the PLO missions in Washington and Moscow, is now a member of Fatah's Revolutionary Council.
According to municipal law, Palestinian Christians are guaranteed the post of mayor in the birthplace of Jesus (Bethlehem) and in Ramallah. Some leading institutions of higher learning (Birzeit and Bethlehem universities), schools (Friends School and the Mutran school for boys) and hospitals (St. Joseph’s and the Augusta Victoria), among others, were established or are run by Palestinian Christians. The leading Christians in the Palestinian leadership today are PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi and presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh. The head of the Palestinian National Fund based in Amman is Ramzi Khoury, also a senior Fatah leader.
The spat over Rajoub's language will not last long, but this tempest in a teacup reflects a much deeper problem — the fragility of Palestinian society. Most societies succeed when they agree on and prioritize a unifying identity, rather than focusing on smaller, group identities. For decades, the Palestinians have been able to unite behind their national identity, but this unity has been fractured during the 10-year-old split between Fatah and Hamas and is widening. The sooner Palestinians are able to pull themselves together and unify behind their common national identity, the stronger they will be in dealing with their adversaries.
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