The Rev. Dr. Naim Stifan Ateek (Arabic: نعيم عتيق, Na’īm ’Ateeq) (born in the Palestinian village of Beisan in 1937) is an Israeli priest in the Anglican Church and founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. He has been an active leader in the shaping of the Palestianian liberation theology, which critics describe as Christian anti-Zionism. He was the first to articulate a Palestinian theology of liberation in his book, Justice, and only Justice, a Palestinian Theology of Liberation, published by Orbis in 1989. The book laid the foundation of a theology that addresses the conflict over Palestine and explores the political as well as the religious, biblical, and theological dimensions. A former Canon of St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, he lectures widely both at home and abroad. His latest book, A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation, was published by Orbis in 2008.
- 1 Early life and education
- 2 Career
- 3 Theology
- 4 Views regarding Palestine and the Israeli Occupation
- 5 Position papers
- 6 Books
- 7 Lectures
- 8 Funding
- 9 Honors and awards
- 10 Supporters
- 11 Personal life
- 12 Criticism of Ateek
- 13 Sources
- 14 See also
- 15 References
Early life and education
Born in 1937 in the Palestinian village of Beisan, Atee moved with his family to Nazareth in 1948. He has said that Beisan (also known as Beth Shean) was destroyed by Israeli forces, turning his family into refugees.
He was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church in 1967. He holds degrees from Hardin-Simmons University in Texas and the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in California. In addition, he received a Doctor of Divinity degree from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in California in 1985.
Ateek earned his BA degree from Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas in 1963, and his Master of Divinity degree in 1966 from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), Berkeley, California. In 1985 he completed his doctoral studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Dr. Ateek has also received honorary Doctors of Divinity from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California and the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the distinguished alumni award from San Francisco Theological Seminary. In 2006, Dr. Ateek received the Sayre award from the Episcopal Peace Fellowship USA.
In 1989 Ateek’s dissertation, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, was published by Orbis Press, which presented it as part of the liberation-theology movement. This book “helped propel Ateek onto the world stage,” according to Dexter Van Zile.
The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center
The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center (also known simply as Sabeel), headquartered in Jerusalem, describes itself as “an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians,” which “encourages Christians from around the world to work for justice and to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
One source traces the founding of Sabeel to a 1989 meeting at which “an ecumenical ad hoc committee of ten clergy and lay theologians” discusses “ways of fostering liberation theology among Palestinian Christians.” The meeting led to an international conference in March 1990, organized with the help of the Mennonite Central Committee, which in turn led to the 1991 book Faith and the Intifada, co-edited by Ateek. These developments culminated in the 1994 founding of Sabeel, which held an international conference in 1996, leading to the creation of Friends of Sabeel.
Sabeel's stated “vision” is “to make the gospel relevant ecumenically and spiritually in the lives of the local indigenous Church....following in the footsteps of Christ means standing for the oppressed, working for justice, and seeking peace-building opportunities, and it challenges us to empower local Christians.”
Sabeel preaches a Palestinian liberation theology, which “hopes to connect the true meaning of Christian faith with the daily lives of all those who suffer under occupation, violence, discrimination, and human rights violations.
Participants in Sabeel's 2005 Toronto conference, according to one report, responded to a suicide attack in the Israeli town of Hadera on the conference’s opening day, and to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement that Israel should be wiped off the map, “with the kind of tsk tsk embarrassment parents show when their child has misbehaved again....There was no moral outrage.” At the Episcopal Church’s 2006 General Convention, in response to Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s decision to give a peacemaking award to Ateek, Chilton and Lautt drew attention to Ateek’s rhetoric about Israel crucifying Palestinians, in response to which Rev. Richard Toll, chairman of Friends of Sabeel North America, felt obliged to maintain that Ateek had since “toned down his rhetoric.” Apparently thanks to Chilton and Lautt's effort, Sabeel's Episcopalian supporters did not make further inroads at the 2006 General Convention.
In 2007, the UCC hosted a Sabeel conference in Boston, attended by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called “on Israeli and American Jews to adhere to the higher callings of their faith without offering one word of admonition to Israel’s adversaries.” After being taken to task by a local Reform rabbi for the Sabeel's revival of “the ancient New Testament charge of deicide,” the pastor of the UCC church hosting the conference acknowledged that Sabeel's rhetoric was problematic but insisted: “These are a desperate, minority people intent on sharing their views, exchanging information and seeking to gain the public’s ear as they give voice to a very old complaint.”
A 2008 New York Times article noted that mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. were moving increasingly toward support for divestment in Israel, thanks to “a version of liberation theology espoused by the Palestinian Christian activist Naim Ateek and his organization Sabeel.” Ateek and his organization, according to the Times, had exerted an extraordinary influence on the policies toward Israel of all five major mainline churches in the U.S. - the Methodists, Prebyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and UCC.
In May 2013, the Church of Scotland released a document endorsing Sabeel’s liberation theology. Writing in Haaretz, Ben Cohen criticized the Church's apparent belief “that Judaism is a particularist, ethnocentric faith that should have been toppled by the universalist message of Christianity.” Cohen further notes that under Sabeel's influence, “the Church of Scotland elevates the situation of the Palestinians, reinvented as Jesus's own people, far above the grotesque plight of Christians elsewhere in the region.”
Members of the Sabeel Center, according to Haaretz, “refuse to meet with Israeli spokespeople or with Christian supporters of Israel.”
- Friends of Sabeel – North America
Sabeel describes Friends of Sabeel—North America (FOSNA) as “a non-profit, tax-exempt Christian ecumenical organization seeking justice and peace in the Holy Land through non-violence and education.” FOSNA cultivates support for Sabeel by churches in the U.S. and Canada. According to Dexter Van Zile, FOSNA recruits “mainline pastors...to the cause of anti-Zionism.” As of April 2013, Sabeel had “hosted twenty-five witness trips to Israel and the disputed territories.”
- International Friends of Sabeel
- Community Building Program
Sabeel's Community Building Program seeks to educate the public about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to foster “a sense of solidarity,” and to contribute to the community's spiritual growth.
- Youth Program
Sabeel's Youth Program “provides opportunities for young people from different churches to meet and get to know each other” and “educates and empowers youth to be future Church and Civic leaders.”
- Women’s Program
Sabeel's Women’s Program “encourages networks of women, fosters inclusivity, broadens knowledge of existing support resources, and educates women on their spiritual history and their responsibility as Christian women.”
- Witness Visits
Sabeel offers regular “witness visits” to the Holy Land for Christian clergy. The trips provide them with an opportunity to meet, talk, and worship with Palestinian Christians and others who oppose the Israeli occupation. The clergy members are able to experience “the Separation Wall, illegal settlements, checkpoints, confiscated and demolished homes, refugee camps, and environmental degradation.”
- Wave of Prayer
Sabeel distributes via email a “Weekly Wave of Prayer” that draws attention to recent alleged outrages by Israel or individual Israelis. The prayer for June 27, 2013, for example, drew attention to an unnamed Israeli man who had purportedly assaulted Palestinian women on the Jerusalem light rail and “Jewish extremists” who had supposedly perpetrated anti-Arab graffiti.
Sabeel also publishes a quarterly English-language newspaper called Cornerstone which “highlights Sabeel‘s ministry activities both locally and internationally as well as theological reflections on contemporary social and political events.”
Ateek's theology rejects the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty, presenting it as an affront to Christian beliefs. Since the Old Testament's “Jewish, Zionist character...has become repugnant to Palestinian Christians,” Ateek writes in his first book, “how can [it] be the word of God...?” Ateek praises the later Old Testament prophets, Isaiah, Jonah, and Amos, who, taking a non-Judaiocentric view, offer a “deeper, more profound, and more mature understanding of God” than that found earlier in the Old Testament; Zionists, he further argues, draw their inspiration from those earlier parts of scripture “that betray a narrow and exclusive concept of a tribal God.” He also laments that the Jews, “whose prophetic tradition as well as their long history of suffering qualify them to play a peacemaking role,” have, since the founding of Iarael, taken on instead “the role of oppressors and war makers.”
Ateek has been developing his thesis since 1989 when he wrote, “The tragedy of many Zionists today is that they have locked themselves into the nationalist concept of God. They are trapped in it and they will be freed only if they discard their primitive image of God for a more universal one.” Today, he and his Sabeel colleagues consistently describe Judaism as “tribal,” “primitive,” and “exclusionary,” in contrast to Christianity’s “universalism” and “inclusiveness.”
For example, a 2001 Sabeel Lenten message read in part as follows: “In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.”
In a 2003 document on suicide bombings, Ateek condemns suicide attacks but emphasizes they are the result of Israeli occupation. “If Israel labels them as terrorists,” he wrote, “they are, after all, the product of its own making.” He also compared suicide bombers to Samson and Israel to the Philistines. “Christ is not in the tanks and jet fighters, fighting on the side of the oppressors,” he argued, but rather “in the city of Gaza, in the Jenin camp and in the old city of Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem suffering with the oppressed.”
Kairos Palestine Document
In December 2009, Sabeel endorsed the Kairos Palestine Document (KPD), which calls on Christians throughout the world to target Israel with boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions. The document, whose stated goal is to communicate the truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict to the world, was drafted by a group that included Ateek. It has received support from Christian churches across the U.S. The 2009 “Kairos Palestine” document has been described as echoing his own “Justice and Only Justice.”
“Morally Responsible Divestment”
The term “morally responsible investment” came into widespread use as a result of a 2006 paper by Ateek, “A Call for Morally Responsible Investment: A Nonviolent Response to the Occupation,” which has been described as “the central text of the pro-divestment movement.”
“The Contemporary Way of the Cross”
In 2005, Sabeel published a forty-page booklet entitled “The Contemporary Way of the Cross: A Liturgical Journey along the Palestinian Via Dolorosa.” It equates the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza with that of Christ on the cross, likens the construction of Israel's West Bank security barrier to Christ’s death. “The Contemporary Way of the Cross” was a major influence on the language of divestment resolutions passed in 2004 by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and in 2005 by the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. Sabeel played an active role in lobbying for those resolutions.
“The Jerusalem Sabeel Document”
“The Jerusalem Sabeel Document: Principles for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel” is one of the foundational documents of the organization. It calls for “one state for two nations and three religions.”
Views regarding Palestine and the Israeli Occupation
Views on Israel and Zionism
In Justice, and Only Justice, Ateek writes, "The preservation of Israel as a Jewish state is important not only to Israeli Jews but to Jews all over the world. I believe that we must honor their wish and accept it. In fact, the Palestinians should eventually guarantee the survival of Israel by accepting it as a Jewish state" (166).
However, a pro-Israel activist named Hasdai Westbrook has written critically of Ateek's activities. The setting was a September 2005 meeting of "Seventeen representatives from various American Jewish organizations and from several American Protestant denominations" with Ateek at the Sabeel office in Jerusalem. The meeting "was the last stop on a trip to Israel and Palestine intended to mend fences between American Jews and mainstream Protestant denominations." Westbrook writes, "Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor of the Anti-Defamation League confronted Ateek on his position that he did not accept Israel's right to exist. Ateek refused to repudiate it, quoting an Israeli writer's statement that if the Jewish people had a right to a homeland it should be in Germany, not Palestine."
In addition, Daniel Fink, writing on behalf of NGO Monitor, shows that Ateek has described Zionism as a “step backward in the development of Judaism,” and Zionists as “oppressors and war makers.”
Use of Crucifixion Imagery
In his 2000 Christmas message, Ateek likened the Israeli government to "modern day 'Herods' ":
The Christmas message for this year takes cognizance of the story of King Herod, the baby Jesus, and the massacre of the innocents. The events of the past three months of protest in Palestine have seen the killing of many children, youths, and even elderly people by the Israeli army. We have witnessed the destruction of many homes and businesses and a siege imposed on three million Palestinians. The state of Israel has been brutally gunning down hundreds of people and injuring thousands whose only crime is their desire for a life of freedom and the independence of their own country from the oppressive occupation.
King Herod allowed himself to stoop down to the basest of all feelings. He stripped himself of all semblance of humanity when he ordered the killing of innocent children. This scenario is being repeated in a different guise. Almost 40% of those killed have been less than 18 years old. Some younger teenagers died by bullets fired from further away than their stones of protest could possibly reach. These young Palestinians posed minimal threat, no real danger to their killers. Why do Israeli soldiers target protesters in the upper parts of their body, given the use of such powerful weapons? This expresses the intent to destroy, not deter. These deaths are a crime against the value of human life. They dehumanize not only the killers, but also those who command them.At this Christmas time, when we remember the message of peace and love that came down from God to earth in the birth of Jesus Christ, our celebrations are marred by the destructive powers of the modern day "Herods" who are represented in the Israeli government. The message of this Christmas is already overshadowed by the sound of war, violence, and state terror. Indeed, violence breeds violence, and innocent people have been killed on both sides. But the original sin is the violence of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East [Je]rusalem. When the Israeli leadership calls daily for the termination of the violence, for us this means, the occupation must end. It is the occupation that is evil and violent. It is apartheid in its ugliest form. Once the occupation ends, the violence will end. There is no other proper sequence. The sooner the Israeli leadership understands this, the quicker we will achieve an enduring peace.
In his 2001 Easter message he stated, in part:
As we approach Holy Week and Easter, the suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of evil political and religious powers two thousand years ago is lived out again in Palestine. The number of innocent Palestinians and Israelis that have fallen victim to Israeli state policy is increasing.
Here in Palestine Jesus is again walking the via dolorosa. Jesus is the powerless Palestinian humiliated at a checkpoint, the woman trying to get through to the hospital for treatment, the young man whose dignity is trampled, the young student who cannot get to the university to study, the unemployed father who needs to find bread to feed his family; the list is tragically getting longer, and Jesus is there in their midst suffering with them. He is with them when their homes are shelled by tanks and helicopter gunships. He is with them in their towns and villages, in their pains and sorrows.
In this season of Lent, it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. It only takes people of insight to see the hundreds of thousands of crosses throughout the land, Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull.Using the Gospel story one can put it in a different and still very poignant way. Four things are clear today. Jerusalem still does not know what makes for peace; Jesus is weeping and his tears are mixed with many other people's tears; the number of people who are carrying their crosses is multiplying phenomenally; and the women of Palestine as well as many Jewish women are weeping over the many killed and wounded innocents. This is the reality of life today.
These messages were also mentioned in the same Nation article cited above, where author Westbrook reports: "Bretton-Granatoor and other Jewish leaders pressed Ateek on his writings, accusing him of anti-Semitism in speaking of the Israeli government as 'Herods' and of its 'crucifixion' of Palestinians. Ateek brushed the suggestion aside, claiming that his use of biblical imagery in the struggle against oppression was justified."
Sabeel periodically issues position papers that are used to frame conversations about the Arab-Israeli conflict at the national meetings of mainline Protestant denominations.
- Naim Stifan Ateek: A Palestinian Christian Cry for Reconciliation, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, U.S.A., 2008 ISBN 978-1-57075-784-6
- Naim Ateek; Cedar Duaybis; Maurine Tobin (Editors): Challenging Christian Zionism, Melisende, 2005. ISBN 1-901764-42-7
- Naim Stifan Ateek: Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, U.S.A., 1989 ISBN 0-88344-540-9
- Ateek, Naim S.; Marc H. Ellis; and Rosemary Radford Ruether, (editors): Faith and the Intifada: Palestinian Christian Voices, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, U.S.A., 1992 ISBN 0-88344-808-4
- Naim Ateek, Cedar Duaybis and Marla Schrader (Editors ): Jerusalem - What Makes for Peace!: Palestinian Christian Contribution to Peacemaking, Melisende, London, United Kingdom, 1997. ISBN 1-901764-00-1
- Ateek, Naim and Hilary Rantisi (Editors): Our Story the Palestinians, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Jerusalem, 1999.
- Ateek, Naim: Holy Land Hollow Jubilee God, Justice and the Palestinians, London Melisende 1999. ISBN 1-901764-09-5
Ateek lectures widely in Palestine and Israel as well as internationally. He has been called “the Desmond Tutu of Palestine.”
Ateek participated in a March 2010 conference held at the First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, California, headlined “A Time for Truth, A Time for Action.” He and Mark Braverman told the 500 participants that Judaism is “tribal,” “isolationist,” and “exceptionalist” and Jews today are “paranoid” and suffer from “psychological issues.”
In 2012, Sabeel received 1,056,893 NIS in donations and contributions. In 2011, the figure was 1,361,235 NIS; in 2010, 1,205,457 NIS. Its 2012 donors included
- Kerkinactie//Global Diakonia
- Mennonite Central Committee-MCC
- General Board of Global Ministries NY
- The United Church of Canada
- Church of Scotland
- Presbyterian Church USA
- United Church of Christ
- The Presbyterian Church of Canada
- Father Brian T. Joyce
- Svenska Mission Skyrkan
- Randa & Bill Veach
- Samia Khoury
- Mr. & Mrs. Brok Comption
- Aelt Bergamo
- Episcopal Church of USA (DFMS)
- Church Together CTBI
- Pal Craft Aid
- Evangelists Missions Work
- World Religion Peace
- David & Julia Ralston
- Arkansas Coalition for Peace
- CCODP Canadian Catholic
- Sister Catherine Appleby
- Eglise Rejormeede France
- Globale Ministries NL
- Nina Chiba
- Solidarities Sacerdota
Several of Sabeel's donors, such as Sweden’s Diakonia, the Netherland’s Kerk in Actie (Church in Action), the UK’s Christian Aid, Canada's Development and Peace, and Finland’s FinnChurchAid, receive millions annually from their respective governments and the EU. Also, the World Council of Churches, which promotes Sabeel’s Contemporary Way of the Cross, “annually receives millions of dollars from European and Canadian taxpayers, both directly and indirectly.”
According to NGO Monitor, a 2008 Sabeel project, “The Nakba Memory, Reality and Beyond,” received 540,000 in funding from the Swedish government agency SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency).
Friends of Sabeel North American received donations in 2006 from several hundred contributors, including “a number of prominent U.S. churches and institutions, as well as longtime Christian Century columnist James M. Wall...and Margot Patterson, then a journalist for National Catholic Reporter. Other recognizable contributors included a number of prominent Episcopalian clergymen, such as Brian Grieves, then director of the Episcopal Church’s Peace and Justice Ministries, and Edmond Browning, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.”
Honors and awards
Ateek received the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Sayre Award. He has also been presented with Distinguished Alumnus awards by San Francisco Theological Seminary and Hardin Simmons University.
In 1974, Ateek was married to Maha Fuad Aranki of Birzeit, West Bank.
Criticism of Ateek
Amy-Jill Levine has described passages by Ateek as exemplifying a “recycled anti-Judaism that depicts Israel as a country of Christ killers.”
In October 2005, a group of prominent Christians, including Bruce Chilton, author and Episcopal priest, Sister Ruth Lautt, a Dominican nun and founder of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, and William Harter, Presbyterian minister and longtime member of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, took part in a press conference organized by B’nai Brith Canada in Toronto, at which they criticized Ateek at length.
Dexter Van Zile of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs wrote in April 2012 that Ateek has “perfected” the “dishonest charade between Arab Christians and their supporters in the West,” depicting Palestinians as “Christ-like sufferers being crucified by Israel” and Israel as intent on “reenacting the sins of the ancient Israelites.” Meanwhile Ateek says “very little...about Hamas and Hizballah and about the mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities by Muslim majorities in Islamic countries throughout the Middle East.” With the founding of Sabeel, Ateek “completed the establishment of an anti-Zionist infrastructure that...has been capable of influencing churchwide assemblies in the United States,” thus helping to make anti-Zionism “a persistent strand of thought” in many U.S. congregations.
Ateek's “view of liberation,” argues Van Zile, “ends with Exodus and does not include the rest of the Pentateuch, which details how God starts holding ancient Israelites accountable – even during their time in the wilderness.” Van Zile points out that in Justice and Only Justice, Ateek only criticizes Israel and Jews, and never “level[s] any expectations at the Palestinian people.”
“Ateek and his fellow Sabeel activists have become the most effective anti-Zionist evangelists in the American mainline churches today,” charges Van Zile, who says that Ateek, rather than bring Christians “into fuller expression of their Christian faith,” recruits them “into the fold of anti-Zionism.” which offers “a message not of salvation through the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, but of resentment and demonization.” The theology of Christian anti-Zionism, according to Van Zile, is “a medieval Judeo-centrism that places Israel at the center of history in the Middle East; its eschatology is that of Jewish repentance, conversion, and abandonment of sovereignty leading to peace in the Middle East.”
Describing Sabeel as “a persistent source of anti-Zionist agitation in mainline Protestant churches in the United States,” Van Zile complained that Sabeel “subjects Israel, Jews, and Judaism to intense scrutiny while remaining nearly silent about Arab and Muslim extremism in the Middle East....Israel is held up to a strict biblical standard of conduct while its adversaries are held to no standard at all.” He also claimed that Sabeel effectively “reenacts the church-synagogue rivalry documented in early Christian writings.”
Van Zile critized Ateek’s “failure to address the negative impact of Muslim teachings regarding the Jewish people and the land.” Van Zile wrote: “There is a certain genius in the way in which Sabeel interrogates Judaism, Jewishness, Zionism, and Christian Zionism while remaining silent about Muslim theological issues relevant to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
- Unmasking False Religion; Following Jesus in occupied territory. Sojourners Magazine, September–October 2001 (Vol. 30, No. 5, pp. 27).
- Apartheid in the Holy Land Desmond Tutu, April 29, 2002, The Guardian,
- Jerusalem: Eternal, intractable by Gerald Butt, 28 September 2000, BBC
- A journey of justice, a journey of faith. An interview with Naim Ateek by Brian Grieves, September 2001, in Witness
- The Theology of Sabeel: What We Believe: Notes from a talk by Rev. Naim Ateek, July 21, 2008, Milwaukie, Oregon
- Palestinian Christian
- Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East
- Bishop Riah Hanna Abu El-Assal
- St. George's Cathedral, Jerusalem
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- Ateek, Naim Stifan (1989). Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books. ISBN 978-0-88344-545-7.
- Westbrook, Hasdai (2006-04-20). "The Israel Divestment Debate". The Nation. Retrieved 2008-05-17.
- Sabeel’s ‘Peace’ façade
- Updating the Ancient Infrastructure of Christian Contempt: Sabeel Footnotes 36-47
- Toward a Strategy for the Episcopal Church in Israel with Special Focus on the Political Situation: Analysis and Prospect; Naim Ateek; page 204
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