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Meanwhile, on a parallel track, Aram has been seeking support from Israeli political leaders in preparation for its moment before the Supreme Court. Some, including Avigdor Lieberman, leader of right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, the third-largest faction in Israel’s parliament, have responded positively.
But even in Jish, a small village of some 3,000 inhabitants that is ground zero for the effort, some residents complain privately that Aram’s battle for self-identity could weaken the Palestinian cause. One resident, who asked to be identified as only “Rami,” said that over decades of living in Israel under Jewish rule, Muslims and Christians in the region had become one Palestinian nation. Aram, he said, is promoting a split that serves Israel and harms the Palestinians. He requested anonymity, he said, to avoid generating a family dispute or feud of the sort that is easy to spark in a small place like Jish.
More important, Deacon Soubhi Makhoul, administrator of the Maronite Exarchate in Jerusalem, told the Forward that the Maronite church does not support Aram’s cause.
“I believe that this is a political issue,” he said. “Moreover, there might be specific Israeli political circles that stand behind this attempt. The Maronites are Arabs, we are part of the Arab world. And although it’s important to revive our language and maintain our heritage, the church is very outspoken against the campaign of these people.”
Khalloul, an army officer who served in elite forces in the IDF, dismisses such criticism. He cites Zionist history in doing so. “It’s just like the Jews who faced opposition from the Haredim when Israel was established,” he said, referring to the angry opposition ultra-Orthodox Jews marshaled against Ben-Yehuda’s effort to revive Hebrew as a modern, secular language. “Those who oppose our efforts to revive our language and identity are Maronites in name only. They do not really engage in the life of our community.”
Khalloul asserted that Aram represents not just members of its association, but also other Christian minority groups in Israel that share its ideology. “We do not rely on the [Maronite] church’s support in our struggle,” he said.
Ironically, even as he fends off charges of helping the Zionists divide and conquer, Khalloul is at one with other residents of Jish in demanding redress from Israel on a crime as old as the State of Israel itself, one that refuses to be forgotten or forgiven. Most of the Maronite families that live today in Jish are not from there. In “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War,” an authoritative account of the military campaign to establish Israel as a state, Israeli historian Benny Morris relates that Israeli forces murdered a number of prisoners of war and local residents in Jish, sending its native residents fleeing — most to Lebanon, where they became refugees.