Don't neglect Christian Arabs [file]

A Christian resident of the village of Mughar knew whom to blame last week for the riots that destroyed so much local Christian property there recently - it was not the fault of Druse assailants as much as the absence of a police station. Though it may be a bit facile to blame the government for this incident, there is something to the charge of neglect of this generally law-abiding and successful community. Christian presence in the Holy land - on either side of its Green Line - is dwindling and Christian-Arab communities increasingly feel beleaguered and set upon. Many Christian Arabs have emigrated and others consider doing so. From the Jewish perspective that is a great shame and pity. Especially at a time of Muslim extremism, Israel's Christians could prove a natural and a highly desirable ally. Indeed Israel had, especially during the 1960s, sought to win Christian-Arab hearts. Yet when it emerged that the opposite was occurring, that local Christians align themselves even more strongly than previously to the nationalist Arab cause, the Israeli side to a large extent gave up. That, more than all else, was a function of the fundamental failure to understand the dynamics of a small society - and a divided one at that - tightly wedged between a Jewish majority and an increasingly militant and growing Muslim minority. Within the Israeli Arab context, Muslims constituted the majority with which the Christians had to contend. The Muslims intimidated and the Jews looked like pushovers. As a result, intolerant Arabs were feared, while tolerant Jews were not. Ongoing Jewish indifference alienated Christians even further. Well-educated and enterprising, many achieved leading positions in Israeli Arab society, despite their precarious status. The Communist Party, to which local Arabs flocked before the rise of militant Islam, featured important Christian luminaries. Some of the Knesset's most extreme nationalist Arab members are Christian like Azmi Bishara and Issam Mahoul. Needless to say, some Palestinian terror kingpins were Christian - like George Habash and Nawaf Hawatma. Nonetheless, most Israeli Christian-Arabs are regarded as moderates and some are currently attempting to organize into a separate socio-political entity. Israel would do well not to alienate such groupings. The Mughar riots will not easily be erased from their collective memory. Nor will the prolonged threat to Nazareth's Church of the Annunciation, which only ended with inordinately belated police action in 2003. The Mughar and Nazareth episodes have much in common. In both, Christians were underdogs and accused the Jews of preferring their antagonists' interests. In Mughar this was ascribed to possible Israeli apprehension of agitating Druse allies and in Nazareth to fear of triggering Muslim rampages. The latter imbroglio, in which the Muslim Wakf began constructing a gigantic mosque directly in front of one of Christendom's holiest sites, constituted a slight of great symbolic significance. By equivocating the police allowed itself to be held hostage by brazen extortionists with unmitigated contempt for the faith and sensibilities of others. Nazareth's Christian population gradually turned into a hounded minority, after the Bethlehem model. Mughar's Christians had every reason to fear the same. For many reasons, it is important for Israel to demonstrate its reliability and commitment to the rule of law for all citizens, particularly in such minority communities. Its lackadaisical law enforcement in the Arab sector must be replaced by a no-nonsense affirmation of state sovereignty. Right now the police are often reluctant to enter Arab communities, even at the price of turning a blind eye to serious crime. We're not doing Israel's Arabs a favor by our absence. Shortsighted avoidance of conflict breeds lawlessness. Middle class Arab families in Triangle towns complain about the difficulty of keeping their youngsters on the straight and narrow because of police timidity. It is dangerous to give impudent offenders the impression that they can get away with anything. Protecting the innocent from thuggery isn't imprudent provocation. Giving in to threats means losing control. Loss of control leads invariably to loss of respect and loyalty and drives potential friends into the arms of foes.