Pastor Johnny Shahwan, a Palestinian Christian from Beit Jala, just outside Bethlehem, has been in a Palestinian Authority (PA) prison for the past two weeks, after he was arrested for meeting with a Jew who previously served as a member of Israel's parliament. Appeals by heads of the Christian community in Bethlehem for Shahwan's release have been ignored by the PA leadership, which appears afraid of a backlash from Islamists and other radical groups if it dares to release the pastor. Pictured: A view of Beit Jala. (Image source: SalibaQ/Wikimedia Commons)
Johnny Shahwan, a Palestinian Christian from the Bethlehem area, has been in a Palestinian Authority (PA) prison for the past two weeks. Shahwan, a pastor who runs the Beit Al-Liqa (House of Encounter) in the town of Beit Jala, just outside Bethlehem, was arrested for meeting with a Jew who previously served as a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Beit Al-Liqa, which includes a guest house and a child daycare center, was shut down by the PA security forces for allegedly hosting the meeting between Shahwan and Yehuda Glick, a rabbi, politician and activist, who was a member of the Knesset representing the Likud Party.
The next day, unidentified gunmen fired several shots at the center in protest of the meeting between the pastor and the rabbi. No one was hurt.
The pastor was arrested shortly after many Palestinians expressed outrage over the meeting he held at Beit Al-Liqa with the American-born Glick. The Palestinians accused Shahwan of promoting normalization with the "Zionist entity" and welcoming an "extremist Zionist settler" into the center in Beit Jala.
A statement issued by Beit Al-Liqa on March 2, 2022 claimed that Shahwan and the other Palestinians were not aware of Glick's identity when they opened the center's doors to him.
"Beit Al-Liqa hosted a group of German tourists... At the end of the meeting with Pastor Johnny Shahwan, an unidentified person [Glick] suddenly walked in and asked to take a 'selfie' with Shahwan and the tourists. We were not aware of the presence of this extremist Zionist person, and he was not part of the group's itinerary."
In an attempt to appease the Islamists who condemned Shahwan and his community, Beit Al-Liqa said in the statement that it "affirms our commitment as a Palestinian national Christian institution to all Palestinians and opposition to normalization [with Israel]." The statement went on to denounce the Jews living in the West Bank as "criminals."
Despite the strongly worded text, and the claim that the organizers were not aware of Glick's identity, the PA leadership quickly dispatched a large police force to arrest Shahwan. The center was shut down for a week pending an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the presence of Glick at Beit Al-Liqa.
Shahwan is now facing trial on charges of "undermining the national sentiments [of Palestinians], stirring up sectarian strife and insulting the prestige of the [non-existent Palestinian] State." If convicted, he could face a lengthy term in prison with hard labor.
Appeals by heads of the Christian community in Bethlehem for the release of Shahwan from prison have been completely ignored by the PA leadership, which appears afraid of a backlash from Islamists and other radical groups if it dares to release the pastor. The appeals have also been ignored by many journalists who mostly chose to focus only on stories that reflect negatively on Israel.
Given the widespread campaign of incitement against Shahwan on social media, it would probably be safer for him to remain in a Palestinian prison than to be released to his home in the Bethlehem area. There, he could be attacked by the extremists who consider him a traitor for meeting with an Israeli Jew.
The widespread incitement against Shahwan is itself quite disturbing. Even more alarming is that the Palestinian Authority, which now has close relations with the Biden administration, is punishing a Palestinian Christian for the "crime" of meeting with a Jew. Even if Glick is seen as a right-winger living in a settlement, that does not give the PA the right to throw him into prison and close down his institution.
If the PA is going to incarcerate every Palestinian who meets with settlers or does business with Jews, it will have to build enough prisons to hold tens of thousands of its people. Moreover, if the PA considers meetings with Jews to be a crime punishable by imprisonment and hard labor, why are its leaders continuing to hold public and secret meetings with Israeli officials?
If PA President Mahmoud Abbas himself is prepared to travel to the Israeli city of Rosh Ha'ayin to meet with Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whom the Palestinians have repeatedly condemned as a "war criminal," why isn't a pastor allowed to meet with a rabbi?
If the PA Minister of Civil Affairs, Hussein al-Sheikh, is allowed to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, why can't any Palestinian Christian organization host a rabbi -- or any Jew?
This incident is yet another example of the endemic hypocrisy of the PA regarding its dealings with Israel.
On the one hand, the PA and its representatives stridently condemn normalization with Israel and sometimes even call for boycotting the state. On the other hand, the PA continues to work closely with Israel, especially through security coordination in the West Bank. It is also worth noting that many of the leaders of the PA hold Israeli-issued VIP cards that grant them privileges denied to most Palestinians, including free entry into Israel.
The Beit Al-Liqa incident is also further proof of the PA's discrimination and mistreatment of the Christian minority. This was not the first incident of its kind targeting Christians in the Bethlehem area.
Last month, several Palestinians from the village of Nahalin severely beat two members of the Christian Nassar family over a land dispute.
It is much easier for the PA to arrest a Palestinian pastor than, say, the head of a Muslim clan. The Christians are not going to take to the streets to riot and attack Palestinian security officers when one of their men is arrested. Muslims, by contrast, would not hesitate to attack the PA and confront its security forces.
The arrest of Shahwan and the closure of Beit Al-Liqa sends a number of messages to the Palestinian public.
First, that anyone who meets or works with a Jew could end up in prison.
Second, that the Christians remain vulnerable and weak and are subjected to stricter laws and rules, most likely because they are not Muslims and are even regarded as "infidels."
Third, that the PA is no different from Hamas or other radical groups in opposing peace and coexistence with Israel. The PA, in other words, is trying to prove to the Palestinians that it is even more extremist than Hamas in dealing with Israel.
Fourth, the incident should be seen in the context of the PA's ongoing campaign of incitement against Jews in general and settlers in particular. By denouncing Glick as an "extremist Zionist settler" and labeling all settlers as "criminals," the PA leadership is giving a green light to its people to murder these Jews.
All this is happening while the Biden administration continues to engage with the PA about the need to revive the peace process and the PA's purported commitment to the so-called two-state solution, while ignoring the persecution of Christians and major human rights violations committed by the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
It is high time for the Americans and Europeans who are funding Palestinian leaders to start asking hard questions and demand accountability and transparency. While they are at it, they might also ask the PA leaders why they are cracking down on Christians in the Bethlehem area and intimidating them by arresting one of their leaders for the crime of meeting with a rabbi.
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.