Easter is celebrated in Jerusalem and surrounding Palestinians cities both religiously and culturally. Children wave beautifully weaved palm leaves on Palm Sunday, Boy Scout-led marches celebrate Sabt el Noor (Holy Fire), when the light comes out of the Church of the Holy Seplechure and is welcomed with marching bands in towns with Palestinian Christian populations such as Ramallah, Bethlehem Zababdeh, Abood and Nablus.
Christian Palestinians are a dwindling population. Decades of occupation and hopelessness coupled with opportunities to emigrate have resulted in many more Palestinian Christians living outside Palestine than inside.
Tourism and Christian pilgrimage constitute perhaps the one source of economic survivor for many Christian families. Many things can be taken away, but holy places and archeological sites remain, and if they are in good shape can attract visiting tourists. But most Christian locations outside the major Jerusalem metropolitan area are in shambles. An opportunity to improve some of these sites gave many hope that things would slightly improve for this dwindling population. But alas this hope was shattered by a single U.S. politician.
Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, conditioned the lifting of the hold with the understanding that the money not be used for assistance in Gaza. She also prohibited the use of USAID funds for road projects in the West Bank, except if directly related to security.
Finally, and bizarrely, she denied use of funds for trade facilitation, tourism promotion, scholarships for Palestinian students and other aid for Palestinian Authority agencies and ministries.
It is hard to understand why a U.S. congressperson would put such conditions over and above the recommendations of USAID officials. The USAID money for the reconstruction of Gaza was pledged by Secretary Clinton and does not go to the Hamas-led government, but to the people of Gaza who suffered tremendous hardships during the Israeli war of 2008-09.
Road construction and trade facilitating projects in the West Bank fit perfectly within the two-state solution, which the entire world, including Israel's prime minister, supports. By opposing such projects, the Republican congresswoman goes against U.S. and international policies.
But perhaps the most perplexing decision by the Florida congresswoman is her opposition to promoting Christian tourism to the Holy Land. According to a request for proposals (RFP294- 2011-204) published by USAID last year, the American government was looking for contractors able to help rebuild a number of Christian sites in the occupied West Bank:
* Burqeen church near Jenin, a Christian sanctuary dating to the early Byzantine era. The current structure dates to the 12th century.
* Sabastia/Samria. The biblical capital of the Northern Kingdom of (Ancient) Israel, the current ruins date from the Roman period.
* Tell Balata Archaeological Park in Nablus, which is listed as an archeological biblical site. It's the site of the Canaanite and biblical city of Shechem.
* Jacob's well, reputed to be the site of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman. The site is also associated with the biblical patriarchs.
* Shepherd's field in Beit Sahour, which is a Christian site near Bethlehem
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen's actions put her outside the positions of Catholic and Protestant leaders, who have made numerous public declarations in support of the Christian Palestinian community. Promoting tourism and pilgrims' visits to Christian sites in the Holy Land is something most Americans surely support.
A hint of that might be found in reviewing the politician's donor base. Campaign finance records show that her top campaign contributor is Irving Moskowitz, the retired Florida businessman who is developing a controversial apartment project -- intended exclusively and discriminatory for Jews -- in occupied East Jerusalem's Shepherd Hotel.
In the U.S., as in most democratic countries, foreign policy is made by the executive branch. It is irrational that a Republican congresswoman, supported by a radical donor, can single-handedly oppose the will of the American people represented by the full plenary of congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government.
The full Congress voted last summer on the entire aid package to the Palestinians. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is the sticking point, and her restriction on the aid bill is damaging U.S. policy. Worse, she has taken a position that harms Christian Palestinians as well as American Christians who might want to visit the sites to which she is denying reconstruction funds.
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