Christmas - AP - 25122011
Christian priests hold the Christmas midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, 2012. Photo by AP
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The dwindling Christian community in the territories and East Jerusalem is considered a relatively moderate group. Few of its sons and daughters commit the sin of violence, and few occupy Israeli prison cells. Hence, the palm frond procession that marched from the Mount of Olives to the Old City on Sunday may provide a barometer for the Palestinian mood, in light of the current freeze in diplomatic negotiations between Israel and the leadership in Ramallah, and the reconciliation talks underway between the leadership in Ramallah and the leadership in Gaza.

For the first time ever, clergymen violated the permits they received to hold the annual religious march, when they added a political tone to the event by holding up placards denouncing restrictions on freedom of worship in Jerusalem. They were protesting against Israeli occupation authorities who they say are too often tight-fisted with permits they issue to Christian Palestinians that want to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In the period leading up to Easter, which is this Sunday, Israel has displayed a bit more munificence. Still, this year, as in past years, not every Christian believer that lives in Nablus will be entitled to pass through the "via dolorosa" of the checkpoints to visit the Via Dolorosa.

Palestinian anger on the rise

The heads of some 80 churches in the territories signed a letter of protest last month against Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, who in an article published in the Wall Street Journal charged that Muslims were harassing the Christian community. The church leaders wrote that Oren's attempt to blame the Muslims for the dire situation of West Bank Christians was "a shameful manipulation of the facts intended to mask the damage that Israel has done to our community."

A report issued by the European Union earlier this year quotes Palestinian church leaders as saying that the main reasons their community members are leaving the territories include: Israeli-imposed restrictions on family reunifications, confiscation of church properties, building restrictions, taxation issues, and difficulties obtaining residency permits for clergymen. They did not mention the practice adopted by extremist settlers of spitting at passing Christian clergymen.

Another indication of increased Palestinian anger was seen last week, at the Arab summit conference in Baghdad. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas did not use the summit to draw special attention to the Arab peace initiative (which was unanimously approved ). Instead, he promoted an economic emergency program to prepare for the possibility that Israel might freeze the transfer of tax funds to the Palestinian Authority, as retribution for the UN Human Rights Council's announcement last month that it would investigate the influence of Jewish settlements on the territories. In order to free the PA from dependence on Israel, the Arab League committed to deposit $100 million in the PA's coffers each month (though past experience shows that for the Saudis and their neighbors, promises are one thing and bank transfers are another ).

Wanting peace, fearing war

A Palestinian poll conducted by Dr. Khalil Shikaki in December 2011 seems to corroborate the increase in anxiety among Israeli defense establishment officials that it would take only a small spark to reignite violence in the territories. He found that 60.2 percent of Palestinians believe that Israel seeks to take over the territories and throw them off their land. Some 21.8 percent believe that Israel will annex the territories and deprive them of their civil rights. The good news is that nearly 60 percent of Palestinians want an arrangement based on the Arab (or Saudi ) initiative for an end to the conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

A poll conducted amongst Jewish Israelis in February by the Dahaf Institute found that Israelis are also beset by anxiety at the prospect of renewed violence by their neighbors, yet are interested in holding talks with the Palestinians for a divorce and a division of the assets. Seventy percent of Israeli Jews believe the Palestinians seek the destruction of Israel, but practically the same amount supports a two-state solution, or a federation of two sovereign states.

Both polls have been appended to a letter now being sent to the prime minister and his cabinet ministers, which calls on them to take the diplomatic initiative, with a regional approach, in order to ensure that Israel will not lose its Jewish and democratic character. The appeal was initiated by Common Denominator, a group set up by Professors David Harel and Jona Rosenfeld, Dr. Baruch Ovadia, Dr. Shai Ben Yosef (a resident of Ofra, in Samaria ), Ruth Rosenfeld and Avner Haramati. Other signatories of the letter include Ben-Gurion University president Professor Rivka Carmi, Academic College of Jezreel Valley president Professor Aliza Shenhar, Professors Shimon Ullman, Meir Heth, Menachem Fisch, Itamar Procaccia and Naftali Rothenberg, former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, attorney Talia Sasson, former ambassador Ilan Baruch and businessman Koby Huberman.

"Based on polls held in the past few months... it is clear that a significant majority of Israelis and Palestinians wish to see an end to the conflict, and expect their leaders to move toward that goal," states the letter. "There is an understanding on both sides that equality of civil and political rights is a prerequisite for the attainment of sustainable agreements. At the same time, there are strong concerns and suspicions among both peoples regarding the intentions of each side toward the other. A deliberate action by leaders of both peoples to diminish these concerns would be a critical component toward forging a reality of peace."

Common Denominator proposes that the political leadership act to create conditions for building a fabric of cooperative relations between Israel and the Arabs, in order to enhance trust and ensure the stability of the agreements. The group contends that these agreements could have a very significant contribution in reducing the danger posed by Iran. The letter concludes with this statement: "It is vital that the citizens of Israel, who might potentially be called upon to risk their lives to defend the State, will be convinced that their leadership is doing everything possible to prevent bloodshed and ensure peace for the generations to come."