The politics of the Pope and Palestine
Dimi Reider on the Pope's visit to the Middle East
18 May 09

The visit of a religious dignitary of the stature of Benedict XVI is a delicate matter, fraught with religious and political sensitivities. In particular, Israeli authorities were especially keen not to burden the Holy Father with anything as earthly as political protests, especially protests critical of the hosting state.

Quite apart from the extraordinary reaction to a Palestinian cleric making a few fairly non-controversial remarks, local police have been sparing no effort to depoliticize the visit, or at least not to allow it to be politicized in any way beyond the recognition demanded of the pope for exclusively Jewish suffering.

In one example, two Palestinian citizens of Israel (or “two Arabs”, as most of the media chose to phrase it) were arrested in East Jerusalem on May 9, three days before the pope was due to land, on suspicion of “intending to deal out leaflets calling for a boycott of the Papal visit.” The police did not specify the content of the leaflets and whether they incited to violence of any sort.

Two other men were arrested in Nazareth the following day, also on charges of “intending to hang posters critical of the papal visit.” The local police again refused to comment on the content of the materials, but noted that “we will act decisively against any attempt to interrupt with the visit.” The headline heralding this arrest in one Israeli website was a gem in its own right —- “Two more suspected of opposition to the pope arrested.”

On the day of the visit itself, police proceeded to shut down a Palestinian Authority press briefing organized in an East Jerusalem hotel. The room at the Ambassador hotel was sealed, the attendees politely dispersed and all “documents” found confiscated. The commanding officer remarked the operation went through “without incident.”

Unusually, the arrests were not entirely reserved to Palestinians. A Jewish ultra-Orthodox man was caught throwing paint at a Vatican flag on a lamppost on a Jerusalem street and promptly detained. Police also dispersed the comic relief of the week — several of the most brutal settler activists, including Cahanist MK Moshe Ben Ari demonstrated in front of the presidential palace, demanding the pope “returns stolen sacred artifacts” – namely, the Temple treasures looted by the Romans in 66AD.

However, in marked contrast to the Palestinian protesters arrested through the weeks, prominent Jewish figures — including several rabbis and a left-wing MK — who called to boycott the events around the visiting pontiff were left untroubled by police.