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Arab Israeli Christians Stay and Serve as Gaza War Riles Galilee

With tens of thousands displaced from the northern border with Lebanon, believers balance their Palestinian and Israeli identities in pursuit of peace with all.
Arab Israeli Christians Stay and Serve as Gaza War Riles Galilee
Image: Amir Levy / Stringer / Getty
A man looks as smoke rises over the Golan Heights after a Hezbollah rocket attack on Northern Israel.

One Friday evening, a young woman sat her toddler on her lap at Christ the King Evangelical Episcopal Church in Ma’alot-Tarshiha, a mixed Arab-Jewish town in northern Israel five miles from the border with Lebanon. Like mothers everywhere, she clapped her hands and beckoned a response.

What does the cow say? “Moo,” the child replied.

What does the dog say? “Woof,” came the answer.

What does the bomb say? “Boom,” and they both laughed.

Only a few hours earlier, with Hezbollah rockets flying overhead, intercepted sometimes by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, church elders had debated meeting at all. When the siren sounded during the service, members wondered if they should enter the concrete basement shelter.

The playful mimicry belies the seriousness of the less reported conflict in the Galilee region, but it also reveals its everyday normalcy.

“By now the bombs have faded into the background,” said Talita Jiryis, the 28-year-old volunteer youth leader at Christ the King. “Dark humor is our mechanism to cope with fear and the uncertainty of tomorrow.”

That is, for the northern citizens who remain near the border. But a different uncertainty pains the tens of thousands evacuated from their homes. Arab Israeli Christians offered different assessments to CT, but all pray for peace in the land of their citizenship. The war in Gaza affects them too.

On October 8, one day after Hamas crossed the border into southern Israel and killed 1,200 Israelis, Hezbollah—the Shiite Muslim militia similarly aligned with Iran—launched its “support front” from Lebanon.

Daily exchange of rocket strikes and retaliatory fire has continued since.

But compared to Gaza, the casualties have been far fewer. In Lebanon, more than 450 people have been killed, mostly Hezbollah and other militant fighters but including over 80 civilians. In Israel, at least 16 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed.

Within weeks, Israel ordered 42 northern communities neighboring Lebanon to evacuate, displacing between 60,000 and 80,000 residents with financial compensation provided. An additional 90,000 Lebanese have also fled the fighting, generally restricted to a stretch of land a few miles on either side of the border.

The violence has steadily escalated and expanded, though both Israel and Hezbollah have appeared reticent to engage in an all-out war. Ma’alot-Tarshiha was not ordered to evacuate; neither was nearby Rameh, where Jiryis was born and raised.

Mentioned in Joshua 19:29 as a border town of the tribe of Asher, Rameh lies a mere eight miles from the border. Yet the historically Christian village, populated also by Muslims and Islam’s heterodox Druze community, sits on a hill facing away from Lebanon. During the last outright conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, rockets struck only the peak or the valley below.

But it is not the relative safety that keeps Arab residents from evacuating. Jiryis said that many in Rameh are originally from nearby Iqrit, where in the 1948 Israeli war of independence, villagers were forced by Jewish soldiers to vacate. A promise they could return within two weeks was not honored; neither was the 1951 Israeli Supreme Court ruling on their behalf. The following Christmas, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) demolished each home.

Seventy-three years and one day later, a Hezbollah rocket struck Iqrit’s Greek Catholic church compound, the only building left standing. The rocket injured the 80-year-old caretaker, and nine IDF soldiers were wounded in subsequent fire as they sought to evacuate him.

Aware of the widespread grievance, Israeli authorities have issued only recommendations—not orders—for Arab communities to evacuate, Jiryis said. In the Christian village of Fassuta, women and children left while the men stayed behind, fearful that history might repeat itself.

Christ the King church, however, represents modern cooperation: Its land was donated three years ago by the Israeli government, and its bomb shelter is open to the public. Services are on the Israeli weekend in advance of the Sabbath, as many from the village work in the Jewish sector. Samaritan’s Purse, she added, helped the poor with a $130 food coupon, a first-aid kit, and battery-charged lamps.

“Jesus is the light of the world,” leaders stated during the distribution.

The church’s average attendance is about 80 people, including a dozen youth, mostly teens. Jiryis’s father is the pastor, and she extended his regional Maranatha family conference ministry with an interdenominational youth gathering planned for April. About 70 signed up from northern Brethren and Nazarene congregations, only for all to be thrown into disarray by Iran’s unprecedented missile barrage against Israel a few days prior to the event.

They held the conference anyway.

“We had to fully activate our faith,” she said. “Christians quote, ‘I will fear no evil.’ But this time, we couldn’t afford to pretend.”

Yet many are mentally exhausted, Jiryis said, and bury their fears rather than turn to God. During the week, she lives in the port city of Haifa, 25 miles southwest of her village, where she works as a psychologist in a government hospital. She has applied her skills through arts and crafts for the village children and insisted the adults continue to meet for mutual fellowship. Breathing exercises and emotional awareness are essential, Jiryis tells them.

Yet as she looks at the war, she is angry at injustice from both sides.

Jiryis knows the history at the heart of Jewish fear. Her mother is German; her great-grandfather was forced to fight in World War II. There are no winners in war, only losers was the mantra instilled in his son. This grandfather passed away when she was seven years old, but the sentiment has filtered into her identity today.

Her paternal grandfather was Palestinian, but like many young people of her generation, Jiryis said she struggles with how to define herself. Although she calls herself a Christian Arab citizen, she doesn’t feel fully Israeli because she is not Jewish, nor does she serve in the IDF. With many Arab and Jewish friends, as a rule she avoids politics and says instead, “Call me Switzerland”—a neutral nation where her father did biblical studies. Yet as an evangelical, she is a minority of a minority of a minority.

Her internal conflict is tangible, but she finds a solution.

“I focus on my heavenly identity,” Jiryis said. “But it is difficult here because you have to belong to something.”

She sees the surrender to community narratives even in the body of Christ. Some Messianic Jews admit they will not pray for the “future terrorists”—Palestinian children—who are dying in Gaza. Some Palestinian evangelicals say they cannot pray for a government committing “genocide.” While tension was always under the surface, relationships everywhere are getting worse.

But some, even apart from Jesus, are still praying together.

A Land of Life

Jiryis’s church is an example of believers praying together, having held joint meetings with Messianic Jews. But the identity issues she described are not uncommon in her community. A 2015 survey of local evangelical leaders conducted by Nazareth Evangelical College (NEC) found that 75 percent called themselves “Arab Israelis,” deemphasizing any Palestinian linkage. A wider poll by the University of Haifa lowered the tally to 47 percent of Christians who identified as “Israeli/non-Palestinian.” Only 29 percent identified with both.

But the war in Gaza has increased Arab solidarity with their nation of citizenship. Last November, the Israel Democracy Institute found that 70 percent feel that they are part of Israel, an increase from 48 percent before the war and the highest total in 20 years of polling. Yet only 27 percent were optimistic about the future of Israel, compared to 72 percent of Jews.

Azar Ajaj, president of NEC, had some of his fears confounded.

The Iran attack forced a northern Israel interfaith gathering onto Zoom, where he was the only evangelical alongside a handful of Christians and several dozen Jewish leaders. He began his remarks by condemning Hamas and grieving with the families of the hostages. Yet he decried the violence and the death of innocent Palestinians—with some inner trembling, since such statements are often interpreted as being anti-Israel.

A ceasefire, he insisted, was necessary.

“The reaction was above my expectations; no one justified what has happened to the people of Gaza,” said Ajaj, who calls himself a Palestinian citizen of Israel. “It gave me hope that they want to live together in respect and dignity.”

Several reached out to him afterward to invite his participation in a joint Prayer for Peace, offered through the interfaith Spirit of the Galilee forum that includes rabbis from all Jewish traditions:

God, Allah, Hashem,
Strengthen the hands of those who strive for peace in our region.
May they know and feel that they are not alone;
Behind them we all stand,
People of all faiths, ages, gender, who pray for peace and quiet in our land.
May all the hostages return to their homes.
We pray for the end of this vicious bloody cycle.
May this be a land of life to all its inhabitants from here and on,
And let us say: Amen.

Slightly more than half of Israel’s 2 million Arabs live in the Galilee area.

It is essential for peacemakers to speak face to face, Ajaj said, to cultivate and sustain good relations. And though the academic gathering was forced online, the Spirit of the Galilee forum has been able to meet a few times in person since the war began.

Ministry continues, as does outreach. Despite the war, NEC was able to publish a small booklet for churches to address Muslim concerns about how Jesus could be both fully God and fully man. Ajaj’s colleague has continued to quietly but publicly conduct discussion groups with about 20 open-minded inquirers in Jerusalem.

And NEC has even grown because of the war. Since 10 of its 35 students live near the border, the college decided to move to hybrid education. Another 20 students then enrolled online. Those in dangerous crossfire areas appreciate the chance to stay near their families. And others can save on the cost of commuting, as the collapse of tourism has pinched many budgets.

Ajaj, speaking in a personal capacity, expects things to only get worse.

“Gaza is messy but not complicated—it can be solved,” he said. “But bad leaders on both sides are more concerned for their political interests.”

The ceasefire he longs for—attempted to be brokered by US president Joe Biden and demanded by the UN Security Council—has yet to be accepted by either Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Hamas’s Yahya Sinwar. Even if implemented, the final plan might not spare his northern region.

Hezbollah has stated that it would respect a truce in Gaza, as it did during the first pause in late November. The Israeli defense minister, however, stated that the fight to push the militia off the northern border would continue if peaceful negotiations do not succeed.

They might. In 2022, Israel and Lebanon demarcated their maritime border.

Yet land issues are thornier, with 13 points of disputed territory for the two nations, including areas of the Golan Heights. For instance, the UN’s 2000 Blue Line armistice divided the village of Ghajar in half and increased tensions over nearby Shebaa Farms, which is occupied by Israel.

UN Resolution 1701 ended a month-long conflict in 2006 and called for the disarmament of all militias and a buffer zone of 12–18 miles south of Lebanon’s Litani River, with no unofficial armed presence permitted. Today Hezbollah continues its deployment, while Israeli planes regularly violate Lebanese airspace. Fearful that Hezbollah could launch its own version of October 7—which it publicly signaled in military exercises five months before the Hamas attack—Israel is insisting on implementation of the resolution.

Threatening rhetoric has steadily increased over the past week, as Netanyahu announced troops would be transferred to the north. The Israeli prime minister previously warned that in an all-out war, Israel would turn Beirut into Gaza.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated he turned down offers for Iran-backed regional factions to come to Lebanon and join the fight—which would be waged “without rules.” He boasted enlistment of over 100,000 fighters, and it is estimated that the US-designated terrorist group possesses 150,000 missiles, many with precision guidance.

“The situation is very complicated and scary,” said Ajaj. “I hope for a political solution, but I don’t know how.”

How Forefathers Felt

Neither does Yasmeen Mazzawi. But she is ready to help.

The 25-year-old Catholic from Nazareth is a volunteer paramedic with the Red Cross–affiliated Magen David Adom (MDA), which translates in Hebrew as “the Red Shield of David.” Her full-time job as an analytics business consultant has her in Tel Aviv, 65 miles south; however, she is now working from home in case the northern front explodes.

“There is never a good outcome from war,” Mazzawi said. “But our heavenly Father will not leave us, and there are good people around to protect us.”

Her safety net is three-fold. Her family and community provide the main support that she needs. The second source is MDA, with her strong sense of belonging to the 30,000 volunteers dedicated to national service. The third is the IDF, where she has several friends.

She identifies as an Arab Israeli Christian, with each part equally important.

For Mazzawi, family values learned from her parents have encouraged the integration of her Christian faith and Jewish environment. But it is not so for many others, she said. Many Arabs grow up without an understanding of Israeli national holidays. And when she missed classes to take a trip with MDA to Auschwitz in high school, several schoolmates shamed her. Through conversation, some came around and even joined her in paramedic service.

She is not out to change anyone’s mind but desires less separation between the communities. She feels that the shared values of all faiths are needed to build a future without conflict, rooted in love and compassion.

“October 7 showed us that history can repeat itself,” Mazzawi said, drawing from her experience in Germany. “Arabs and Jews see each other but do not know each other, and we have to bridge this gap.”

Another Christian making an effort is Neveen Elias, an Aramean from Jish, three miles from the border with Lebanon. Last year, at age 39, she enlisted in the army. And along the way, she adopted a further term for her personal identity.

“I am a Zionist,” Elias stated. “We hope that … all the Christians [will] serve in the IDF.”

Israel requires two years of national service for all females who are not religiously practicing, with eight additional months for men, at age 18. Except for Druze, Arabs are exempted, along with ultra-Orthodox Jews. The IDF does not differentiate between Christians and Muslims, for whom enlistment is voluntary. But sources said that consistent with the Arab community overall, few evangelicals participate.

But Elias said the IDF wants her to be an example. In 2014, her community became eligible to change their ID cards from “Arab” to “Aramean,” but anecdotal evidence suggests that by 2022, some 4,500 were in process—less than 2 percent of Christians in Israel. The government initiative sparked tension as a tactic to separate Arabs by faith and increase Christian enrollment in the IDF. Only a few hundred Muslims volunteer to serve in the military, although the number has recently grown.

Elias’s son is one such Arab who joined the troops in combat.

Her desire for more people to enlist is buttressed by an Israeli pre-military academy in the Galilee region, where Jews and Christians share barracks for six months. Founded by a fellow Aramean from Jish, the academy has graduated 315 men and women since its founding in 2017.

Among Jews, the IDF is considered a great equalizer, uniting Israel’s diverse Hebrew communities under the national umbrella. The hope at the academy is much like Mazzawi’s: Arab students learn the Zionist story while Jews become familiar with Christian holidays and beliefs—which Elias said are not taught in public schools.

Her decision to join the IDF is highly controversial, but Elias has not neglected her roots. She cited her ancestral hamlet of Biram as a reason Jish remains populated; like Iqrit, Biram was a Christian village where people were not allowed to return.

Many question how she could join the Israeli army that displaced them. But as she keeps watch over evacuated kibbutzim, her Jewish friends, still evacuated seven months later, lament their newfound understanding: “Now we know how your forefathers felt when told to leave and unable to return.”

She is pessimistic about their chances.

“The IDF is waiting to finish in Gaza before it gets busy in the north,” Elias said. “We feel like it will be soon.”

In the Same House

At least on the southern border, one Arab evangelical is hoping so.

“You need to protect your people, so you need to clean this virus,” stated Saleem Shalash, pastor of Jesus the King Church in Nazareth. “Israel … need[s] to continue finishing Hamas so the people of Gaza can live in peace.”

Outspoken in his support for Israel, he wants his ministry to answer Nathanael’s question in John 1:46: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And seeking to build bridges between communities, he aims to “get Isaac and Ishmael into the same house.”

October 7, Shalash said, threatened the reconciliation work of many years. His church has supplied aid to 900 families displaced from both north and south, but it still took months to regain the trust of Jewish partners.

“The Arabs did this,” they told him.

The ice was finally broken at a gathering with the mayor, when a fellow Arab pastor prayed for the victims. Afterward, many wept and embraced him.

Shalash, who once disliked Jews, centered his call in the story of the Prodigal Son. His interpretation was always that the Jews were those who lost their way, but he came to see the church—though grafted into the people of God—as the older brother angry that welcome is still extended to them. The parable is unusual in that it remains open-ended.

“The Lord told me, ‘It is your choice,’” Shalash stated. “But what I am saying is not very popular among Israeli Arabs.”

Survey data has shown that most of this community prefers life in Israel to that in any future Palestinian state. But grievances run deep.

Comprising about 20 percent of Israel’s population today, Arab citizens are descended from the original 150,000 who remained after the 1948 war. More than 700,000 refugees fled or were driven from Israel around the time of the war and were not allowed to return.

Throughout Israel today, Arabs are less well-off than their Jewish neighbors. Prior to COVID-19, about 45 percent of Arab families lived below the poverty line, compared to 13 percent for Jews. Education levels are also lower, with 15 percent holding an academic degree, compared to 33 percent for Jews.

Christians are 8 percent of the Arab community and 2 percent of the Israeli population overall. Given the tensions in the region, many—but not all—prefer to keep silent.

“Some want only to pray, others to make statements,” said Toumeh Odeh, a lawyer from Kafr Yasif, a Christian-majority village 10 miles from the border. “We generally prefer to be on the safe side. But as believers, we must have a say against injustice.”

He has done so in his profession, helping Israeli Arabs married to West Bank Palestinians obtain their legal residency in Israel, as a 2003 law ceased the automatic granting of citizenship. And he gives credit where credit is due: Living also in Ma’alot-Tarshiha, he praised the police for containing an anti-Arab incident sparked by anger from October 7—which he thoroughly condemns.

But there is nonetheless a disparity.

“Israel is strong and has the power over Palestinians,” said Odeh. “We must speak about the wrong done by the state, while not neglecting the wrong done against Jews.”

His statement reflects his four-fold identity: Arab, Palestinian, Christian, and Israeli citizen. He laments the bygone days when the government sidelined Jewish extremist groups from parliament; today they occupy key posts in the cabinet.

The situation is only growing worse, Odeh said, but his faith provides the answer: the Good Samaritan. Jesus crafted the parable in response to a lawyer, rebuking all who neglect mercy. In contrast, Odeh praised the Council of Evangelical Churches in Israel (CECI) for raising $13,000 to provide shelter to the displaced and assist those affected by the economic downturn—both Arabs and Jews.

Representing the 35 congregations among local Assemblies of God, Baptist, Brethren, Nazarene, and Christian Missionary Alliance churches, CECI had previously sent money for pandemic relief in the West Bank; for victims of the 2020 port explosion in Beirut; and for damage suffered in last year’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

“We try to help everyone in need,” said Odeh. “Hatred only brings more hatred, and only light can drive out darkness.”

Such is his vision for Israel and the region. Peace must first come through governments, he said, citing Egypt and Jordan as partial examples. If rights are honored and prosperity follows, within a generation it will take hold among the people.

True peace with the Palestinians will take away any animosity for Hamas or Hezbollah to exploit, he believes. And separating the conflict from religion will help, as Odeh expressed frustration with the actions of Israeli settlers and Islamist ideologues alike.

Polling shows 62 percent of Israelis support a decisive attack on Hezbollah. Yet Odeh is skeptical. “I don’t have the answers, but reciprocal killing makes it worse for both sides,” he said. “The only solution is peace, resulting in good for all.”

In the meantime, northern residents remain in limbo. Evacuees cannot currently return safely, said Odeh. The militia must be pushed back off the border, said Mazzawi. Shalash noted that relief projects have been hindered due to fundraising issues. And Ajaj observed that while Christian donations have poured in for Jewish organizations, the Arab church is neglected.

But all interviewed sources agreed with Jiryis.

“I pray there will be no war with Lebanon,” she said. “The solution for both sides is to know Jesus.”

[ This article is also available in العربية русский, and Українська. ]

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