For centuries Christians around the world have accepted the Nativity story at face value – that Jesus was born in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem. But a growing number of Bible scholars and archaeologists are rocking the foundations of Christian faith by suggesting they have identified a different birthplace for Jesus. They claim to have amassed a considerable body of evidence for their theory but say Church leaders are in no mood to listen. The traditional account of the Nativity, contained in Matthew’s Gospel, is that Joseph and a pregnant Mary travelled 150km south from their home in Nazareth in the Galilee to the town of Bethlehem, close to Jerusalem, to participate in a census ordered by the Romans. It was there that Jesus was born.

Email from Bethlehem

20 December 2004

In the Holy Land’s “other” Bethlehem, there are no pilgrims looking for a room – not even at Yosef Yeger’s inn. “Christmas isn’t much of an event in Israel,” says the hotel owner. “This year Christmas falls on the Sabbath so maybe we will have a few extra bookings from couples wanting a romantic weekend.” As Christian pilgrims brave yet another conflict-blighted festive season in the Holy Land, venturing from Jerusalem to the neighbouring Palestinian town of Bethlehem to celebrate the nativity, few are likely to consider a detour 90 miles north to a village of a few dozen homes known in Hebrew as Bethlehem HaGalilit, or Bethlehem of the Galilee.

Remember the longest-running story of the 1990’s? It began at the turn of that decade with the revelation that European banks and financial institutions had been secretly profiting for more than half a century from bank accounts and assets deposited by European Jews who later died in Nazi concentration camps. The banks, it emerged, had avoided returning the money to surviving family members. Soon financial houses across Europe were being called to account. The story reached its climax at the end of the 1990’s with the Swiss banks agreeing to pay out the huge sum of $1.25 billion, after their initial foot dragging was exposed in a media campaign led by Holocaust reparation funds and the Israeli government.

Investigations by the Israeli parliament have dug up disturbing evidence that Israel has been profiting for decades from vast sums invested in local banks by European Jews who died in the Nazi death camps. And even now the banks are delaying returning the money to their heirs. But unlike a similar scandal that hit European banks in the mid-90s, almost no pressure is being brought to bear on the Israeli banks by the Israeli government or by Jewish reparation organisations representing Holocaust families, who were the main critics of the European banks. The Israeli government is believed to be keeping quiet because it is deeply involved in the local banking scandal itself, and the Jewish organisations are reported to be concerned that exposure of the story will damage Israel’s international reputation.

I note with dismay the correspondence provoked by my commentary last week (“Nonviolent protest offers little hope for Palestinians”). My critics fall into two camps. The first accuses me of excusing or justifying violent Palestinian attacks on Israelis. This is a gross misrepresentation. I simply explained why Arun Gandhi’s message of nonviolence is likely to fall on stony ground in the occupied territories. Sadly, the suicide bombing in Beersheba on the day my commentary was published appears to confirm my point.

Look again, Gandhi

2 September 2004

“I am coming to speak about peace and non- violence,” Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, told the Jerusalem Post newspaper shortly before he arrived in the Middle East to preach a message of mutual respect, love and understanding to two conflict-weary publics, Israeli and Palestinian. At his first rally in East Jerusalem last week, Gandhi led thousands of Palestinians, including Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and a handful of Israeli peace campaigners on a march against the wall being built across the West Bank. Under the banner “No to violence, yes to peace”, the protest was designed to promote the path of Palestinian peaceful resistance to Israel’s military occupation.

A Gandhi in Jerusalem. The arrival in the Middle East of Arun Gandhi, preaching his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s message of love, brotherhood and nonviolence to conflict-weary Israelis and Palestinians, has raised tentative hopes that the bloody conflict may be entering a more reflective phase. But few Palestinians are likely to embrace peaceful protest as a way of attaining statehood – not because Palestinians are hellbent on mindless retribution against Israelis, but because nonviolence is unlikely to be effective as a strategy.

Cracking under the strain

26 August 2004

Severe cracks surfaced inside the Israeli government this week as its senior law officers publicly fell out with the defence establishment and the Foreign Ministry over the country’s future strategy in the face of the July verdict of the International Court of Justice that the separation wall being built in the West Bank is illegal. According to a report issued last week by a Justice Ministry team appointed by the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, Israel is facing international sanctions and its leaders potential prosecution for war crimes unless it begins presenting a fairer face to the world.

Al-Ahram Weekly 26 August 2004   Four years ago Raed Abu Elkian, 27, finished serving in the Israeli army as a Bedouin tracker. Today the entrance to his village in Israel’s southern semi-desert region, the Negev, is marked by a giant concrete block stamped in black ink with the words “Danger. Entry Forbidden: Firing Range”. […]

A little-known team is making football history as the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Cup begin this month. It is the first Arab team to compete in a European championship and the first Arab squad to represent Israel in an international tournament. The team, called Bnei Sakhnin, are carrying aloft the hopes of the Jewish state. But as Sakhnin romped home to a 3-0 victory in their first match, against the Albanian side Partizani Tirana, in a sultry Tel Aviv stadium last week, few Israelis were cheering them on. A mere 2,000 fans turned out at the national stadium in Ramat Gan.

Email from Sakhnin

16 August 2004

The match itself will be little honoured outside the sporting annals, but last Thursday night an obscure team called Bnei Sakhnin made football history in a Tel Aviv stadium by appearing in an international qualifier against the Albanian side Partizani Tirana in the Uefa Cup. They were the first Arab team ever to compete in the European competition. But more intriguingly, as Sakhnin romped home to a 3-0 victory, they carried with them the hopes of Israel’s legions of football fans. It is the first time the Jewish state has been represented in an international football competition by an Arab club.

Israel’s Abu Ghraib

12 August 2004

In a last-minute attempt to head off a mass hunger strike among Palestinian political prisoners, Israel partially reversed this week its policy of blocking most family visits to inmates. Prison authorities declared that an extra 600 prisoners would be allowed to see close relatives. Yaakov Ganot, head of the Israel Prison Service (IPS), instructed the 20 Israeli jails holding Palestinian security prisoners to compile lists of those who had been denied visits for more than a year. Ganot took his decision after Palestinian prisoners submitted 57 demands for improvements in detention conditions, with the restoration of visiting rights top of the list. A hunger strike is due to begin next week.

Third leg?

22 July 2004

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened a round of hurried negotiations this week with the two main Israeli opposition parties, Labour and the ultra-Orthodox Shas, in the hope of finding a third leg to prop up his collapsing government. Labour officials said they believed the talks could be completed before the Knesset leaves for its summer recess in two weeks. If an agreement cannot be reached, elections will loom large. The negotiations to create a unity government gained an unexpected urgency last week following the dismissal from the cabinet and his party of Yosef Paritzky over revelations that he had plotted to frame a senior rival figure in his centrist secular Shinui Party before the last elections, in January 2003.

In principle there is protection of religious rights, such as the freedom of religious practice and worship. But in reality Israel has devised a partial theocracy in which large areas of the citizens’ private dealings with the state fall exclusively under the control of religious authorities. So there is no option of a civil marriage within Israel, nor are inter-faith marriages possible. The religious authorities — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — have sole authority over issuing birth, marriage and death certificates. The Interior Ministry refuses to classify citizens on their ID cards in any terms other than ones that reveal their ethnic and religious identities. Even the adoption law of 1981 provides that a child can only be adopted by people of the same religion. The outcome, if not the purpose, of all these measures has been to reinforce the ghettoisation of the weaker, non-Jewish religions.

Atomic politics

15 July 2004

The first visit in several years of the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), should have sent a collective shiver down the spine of the Israeli defence establishment. Instead, it passed by with little publicity or tension. Mohamed El-Baradei’s two-day visit included a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and concluded without any real pressure being exerted on Israel over its policy of “nuclear ambiguity”. According to Israeli officials, El-Baradei did not test whether he would be barred from the Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev. He did not even ask for access to the site, which is believed to be used in the manufacture of nuclear armaments.

An Israeli Knesset committee is currently formulating a constitution for Israel — the first such attempt in its 56 years. The task was abandoned early in the state’s history, after the country’s founding fathers feared that giving a precise definition to the state’s character would tear apart the fragile consensus between secular and religious Jews and that a Bill of Rights would enshrine in law rights it wanted to deny the Palestinians. Instead, the founding document of the state, the Declaration of Independence, made a promise: that Israel would “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex”.

Dozens of corner stores across Israel are at the centre of a divisive legal battle which is tearing apart the traditional consensus about the character of the Jewish state and who should be considered a Jew. Gennady Ozadovsky’s Super Ta’anug store – in the city of Karmiel in northern Israel – is one of them. It has shelves stuffed with everything from hummus, pretzels and pitta bread, to low-fat yoghurt and beer. For the world it looks like any other corner supermarket in Israel. Ozadovsky, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, has offended the sensibilities of his religious neighbours by stocking non-kosher products in his shop, including pork meat, sausages and shellfish.

What Vanunu knows

25 June 2004

He was the last breakfast companion I was expecting. Separated from me by a rack of toast was Mordechai Vanunu, the man who 18 years ago revealed that Israel had amassed a secret stockpile of nuclear weapons. Breakfast at the St George’s guest house in East Jerusalem is usually a sedate affair, but on this occasion both he and I were skating unintentionally but dangerously close to arrest by Israel’s security services. Vanunu, who found sanctuary in the grounds of the Anglican cathedral of St George’s when he was released from jail two months ago, is under a gagging order imposed by the Israeli government. He is banned from talking to foreigners, especially foreign journalists, as the former Sunday Times reporter Peter Hounam discovered recently when he was arrested by the Shin Bet secret services and deported.

Freedom means silence

3 June 2004

For the first time in nearly two decades, nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu was able to speak directly to the world in an interview with the British media at the weekend. Jonathan Cook reports Both The Sunday Times and the BBC gave a platform to Vanunu in an interview, held in secret, in which he told of his reasons in 1986 for revealing to the world the existence of some 200 Israeli nuclear warheads, of his kidnap by a Mossad agent in Rome and of severe treatment at the hands of Israeli prison authorities. Although the former technician at the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev had not been allowed to speak of these or any other matters since his capture by Israel, there was little that was explosive in his latest revelations. T

For the past year, members of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee have been meeting on Sundays to draft a constitution that would, once and for all, define the nature of the state and the rights and obligations of citizenship. The task of hammering out a written constitution has confounded Israeli governments and legislators for more than five decades. Strangely, given its historic nature, the committee’s work has attracted almost no media coverage, even though—or, maybe, precisely because—it threatens to reopen wounds that have not fully healed since the Jewish state’s blood-stained birth in 1948.

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