Reaching the Nations

Palestine (West Bank and Gaza Strip)

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Geography

Area: 6,220 square km (West Bank: 5,860 square km, Gaza Strip: 360 square km).  The Palestinian territories comprise the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  The West Bank borders Jordan and Israel whereas the Gaza Strip borders Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea.  Rugged hills and highlands subject to temperate climate occupy most of the landlocked West Bank.  The Jordan River marks the Jordanian border on the east and the city of Jerusalem is divided between the West Bank and Israel.  Sandy, flat coastal plains and sand dunes occupy the Gaza Strip.  Droughts are a natural hazard.  Environmental issues include fresh water scarcity, proper sewage disposal, desertification, salination of fresh water, and soil degradation.  Israel occupies both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, portions of which are governed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. 

Population:  West Bank: 2,514,845; Gaza Strip: 1,604,238      

Annual Growth Rate: West Bank: 2.13%, Gaza Strip: 3.29%    

Fertility Rate: West Bank: 3.12, Gaza Strip: 4.9    

Life Expectancy: West Bank: 72.76 male, 76.92 female; Gaza Strip: 72.05 male, 75.4 female

Peoples

West Bank: Palestinian Arab/other (83%), Jewish (17%)

Gaza Strip: Palestinian Arab (100%)

Palestinian Arabs constitute the majority in the West Bank; most resided within the confines of the West Bank before the establishment of the state of Israel.  Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlers constitute the primary minority groups.  The population of Gaza Strip is homogenously Palestinian Arab, most of whom are the descendents of refugees from present-day Israel.

Languages: Arabic [primarily Levantine dialect] (90%), Hebrew (9%), other (1%).  Only Arabic has over one million speakers (3.7 million).  

Literacy: 92.4% (2004)

History

Semitic-speaking peoples populated present-day Palestinian territories from antiquity.  During Biblical times, the West Bank was populated by the Israelites and was governed by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah whereas the Gaza Strip was ruled by Philistine city states.  Various ancient civilizations successively ruled or invaded the region, including Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs.  Various Christian crusader states were established in Palestine during the middle ages, but were eventually overrun.  Several Arab kingdoms occupied Palestine until the region was integrated into the Ottoman Empire.  Jews began to immigrate to Palestine during the nineteenth century and by 1917 the British took control under the British Mandate of Palestine.  Palestinian Arabs began violently opposing Jewish immigration and settlement during this period and declared war against Israel immediately following Israel's declaration of independence.  The West Bank came under Jordanian administration and the Gaza strip came under Egyptian administration from 1948 until 1967 when both territories were annexed by Israel during the Six Days War.  Beginning in 1993, Israel began transferring greater autonomy and self-rule to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for some Palestinian-populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Progress establishing a sovereign, independent Palestinian state came to a halt in 2000 through a Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada which lasted until 2005. Consisting of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia, the Quartet proposed a plan granting the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state to peacefully coexist with Israel in 2003.  Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat died in 2004 and Mahmud Abbas become president of the PA in 2005.  Later that year, Israel agreed to withdraw its military and settlers from the Gaza strip and from four settlements in the northern West Bank.  In 2006, Hamas took control of the Palestinian Legislative Council which precipitated into a violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Hamas-backed National Unity Government in 2007.  Abbas relocated the Palestinian Authority to the West Bank which is led today by Salam Fayyad.  At present, Hamas continues to control the Gaza Strip whereas the PA governs the West Bank.  Efforts by Egypt to reconcile differences between the two Palestinian governments have not come to fruition.  During the first half of 2008, intense fighting between Hamas and the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip left over a thousand Palestinians dead and damaged housing and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.  No progress toward the establishment of a democratic Palestinian state has occurred in recent years as Palestinian leaders have refused to begin negotiations with Israel until Israeli settlement activity ceases in Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Israel continues to control much of the airspace and sea access for the Gaza Strip and reconstruction efforts in the Gaza Strip had not begun as of early 2011.

Culture 

Palestine shares many cultural similarities with neighboring Levantine nations regarding religion, history, society, economics, and politics.  Traditional Christian groups and the Muslim majority have peacefully coexisted for centuries.  Hamas has enforced strict observance of a radical interpretation of Islam in the Gaza Strip.  Poetry, folklore, and art are proud Palestinian traditions.  Egyptian and Lebanese foods are commonly found among Palestinian cuisine, such as fish, olive oil, cheese, citrus, and taboon bread.  Polygamy is permitted in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  

Economy

GDP per capita: $2,900 (2008) [6.2% of US]

Human Development Index: N/A

Corruption Index: N/A

Political instability and Israeli movement and access restrictions halted economic development in the West Bank during the 2000s, but economic growth occurred in 2010 as a result of a loosening of some restrictions, PA economic reforms, and the reception of international aid.  The Gaza Strip remains isolated from the international community and is unable to regularly ship exports due to an Israeli blockade initiated after the takeover of the government in the Gaza Strip by Hamas.  Natural resources include Arable land and natural gas.  46% of the population lives below the poverty line in the West Bank whereas 70% of the population lives below the poverty line in the Gaza Strip and 40% of the work force was unemployed.  Services generate 81% of the GDP whereas industry generates 14% of the GDP.  Major industries include textiles, food processing, manufacturing, and quarrying.  Olives, fruit, and vegetables are common crops. 

Corruption is perceived as severe and widespread.  Black market economic activity occurs under the Egyptian border, including weapons trafficking.  In 2010, President Abbas endorsed an anti-corruption law that addressed all forms of corruption found in Palestine, including criminalizing corruption, granting power for an anti-corruption task force to investigate corruption cases, and supporting the coordination of the Commission for Combating Corruption with authorities to control, track, seize, and recover illegally obtained funds and proceeds.[1]  It remains to be seen to what extent this legislation will be implemented and enforced.

Faiths

Muslim: 90%

Jewish: 9%

Christian: 1%

Christians

Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic  80,000

Latter-Day Saints  less than 20

Religion

Palestinians are approximately 98% Sunni Muslim.  According to a 2008 study, there were 50,000 Christians in the West Bank and between 1,000 and 3,000 Christians in the Gaza Strip.  Many West Bank Christians reside in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem.   Most Christians are Greek Orthodox.  The number of Christians in Palestine continues to decline due to emigration and low birth rates.[2]  

Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The Palestinian Authority uses the Palestinian Basic Law as a temporary constitution.  Islam is the state religion and legislation is derived from Shari'a law, but the Basic Law prohibits religious discrimination and protects religious freedom as long as religious practices do not interfere with morality and public order.  The Palestinian Authority recognizes major Islamic holidays as well as Christmas.  Christian churches attain one of three statuses of government recognition from the Palestinian Authority.  Traditional Christian denominations that made special agreements with Ottoman authorities in addition to Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran Churches are legally recognized and may hold ecclesiastical courts on personal and property matters.  Protestant churches which were established between the late nineteenth century and 1967 have unwritten agreements with the Palestinian Authority, can perform some legal functions like issuing marriage certificates, and operate freely.  The third status for churches comprise of missionary-focused Christian groups which have no agreements with the government but generally operate without restrictions.  The government requires religious teaching in public schools tailored to Muslim and Christian students.  The Israeli government restricts the movement of people across borders with Israel, resulting in many being unable to visit holy sites or travel for religious purposes.  Despite the strict interpretation of Islam enforced on Muslims by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Christian are generally allowed to practice without harassment.  Societal tensions are highest between Jews and the non-Jewish population.[3] 

Largest Cities

Urban: 72% 

Gaza, Jerusalem (Al-Quds), Khan Yunus, Jabalyah, Al-Khalil, Rafah, Nabulus, An-Nusayrat, Bayt Lahiya, Tulkarm.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregations.

None of the ten largest cities have an LDS congregation.  45% of the population resides in the ten most populous cities.

LDS History

LDS apostle Elder Orson Hyde traveled to Palestine and dedicated the Holy Land on October 24th, 1841 for the gathering of the Jews.[4]  Organized to first to serve Armenians in the Near East, the Palestine/Syrian Mission operated from 1933-1939 and 1947-1951.  One of the mission presidents in the 1930s was Armenian but the mission closed and the branches were discontinued during World War II.  An LDS mission in Switzerland administered Palestine in the 1970s.  There has been no formal LDS presence in the West Bank or Gaza Strip since the mid-twentieth century.  Palestine has been assigned to the Middle East/Africa North Area since 2008.  In recent years, the handful of Latter-day Saints in the West Bank have experienced significant challenges worshiping with members in Israel proper and have been isolated due to border regulations.  There does not appear to have ever been an LDS presence in the Gaza Strip.

Membership Growth

LDS Membership: less than 20 (2009)

There were at least three Latter-day Saints in Bethlehem in late 2009.  There may be additional members in some other locations.  Most members are Arab Palestinians and all appear to live in the West Bank. 

Congregational Growth

Wards: 0 Branches: 0 Groups: 1

No LDS branches have continuously operated in Palestine.  In 2009, a group was organized in Bethlehem, but likely operates on an irregular basis due to few members. 

Activity and Retention

As many as 50% of Latter-day Saints in the West Bank may be practicing despite their limited numbers.

Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Arabic

All LDS scriptures and most church materials are translated into standard Arabic. 

Meetinghouses

Local members worship in small groups in their homes. 

Health and Safety

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to pose a safety threat due to terrorism and extremist groups targeting Christians that proselyte.  Access to healthcare is extremely poor in the Gaza Strip.

Humanitarian and Development Work

The LDS Church has conducted numerous humanitarian and development work projects recently in Palestine in association with other nongovernment organizations.  In both the West Bank and Gaza Strip the Church has donated hygiene kits, dry milk, school kits, newborn kits, blankets, orphanage modules, and wheelchairs.  The Church also provided neonatal resuscitation training in Gaza, Nablus, and Ramallah.  Aid has also specifically been delivered to the needy in East Jerusalem.[5]

 

Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects

Religious Freedom

The Palestinian Authority has demonstrated considerably greater tolerance toward missionary-oriented Christians than most Arab governments, permitting nonregistered Christian groups to proselyte without any impediments even though the majority of the population is Muslim.  The LDS Church's agreement with the Israeli government to refrain from any proselytism may inhibit missionary activity in the West Bank as Israel occupies the territory.  However, there are no apparent restrictions regarding assembly in Palestine.  The establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestine together with a reduction in Palestinian-Israeli tension may improve prospects for full-time missionary activity.  Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip at present has not realistic prospects of an LDS presence due to violent extremism, poor living conditions, a lack of Latter-day Saints, and the strict adherence of the government to Islamic Sharia law.   

Cultural Issues

Societal tolerance of Christians is a major opportunity for Latter-day Saints to establish a church presence and perform missionary activity on a member referral basis.  Most the population has demonstrated low receptivity to Christian missionary groups and prospective LDS converts face many societal challenges which may include ostracism from family and the community and harassment.  Those engaged in polygamy desiring baptism in the LDS Church must end these relations in divorce and be interviewed by a member of the area presidency for approval.  Continued LDS humanitarian and development work may increase awareness of the Church and foster positive public opinions. 

National Outreach

Palestine remains entirely unreached by LDS missionary efforts.  Only those with close personal relations with the handful of Latter-day Saints residing in the West Bank have any opportunity to receive mission outreach.  Government agreements between the LDS Church and the Israeli government prohibit any member-missionary activity in Israel and these regulations are likely applied to Israeli-occupied West Bank.  The sole LDS congregation in Bethlehem would reach fewer than one percent of the Palestinian population if LDS missionary activity occurred due to the city's small population.

Concentrating missionary efforts and expanding national outreach among communities of Christian Palestinians may be more productive than among the general Muslim population, but low birth rates and high rates of emigration pose challenges developing self sufficiency and permanent mission outreach centers. 

The internet has been a useful tool in introducing Arab Muslims in the Middle East to LDS beliefs, primarily through unofficial websites run by Arab LDS members.  The Church publishes no meeting times or locations for Palestine.  Individuals desiring to meet with church representatives or attend church meetings would most likely have to contact church leadership in Israel.  Telephone contact information for branch presidents in Israel is available on the LDS meetinghouse locator website.  LDS Arabic language materials online are limited to translations of General Conference addresses. 

Member Activity and Convert Retention

Many of the known Latter-day Saints residing in the West Bank are active.  Moderate member activity rates appear linked to the high degree of devotion exemplified by converts to overcome societal challenges and the enduring personal desire to live church teachings.  Isolation from membership in Israel through strict border regulations and limited contact with area church leadership pose challenges for members to attend church meetings and live gospel teachings.  Diligent home teachers in the Jerusalem Branch visited Arab Palestinian LDS families in Bethlehem in 2009 to offer encouragement, teaching, and support as they were unable to cross over the Israeli border to attend church meetings in Jerusalem. 

Ethnic Issues and Integration

Ethnically Jewish LDS converts may face challenges integrating into Palestinian-majority congregations if a more widespread church presence is established one day and Jewish settlers remain in the West Bank.

Language Issues

Widespread use of Arabic reduces challenges for the Church to meet multiple language needs.  Some accommodation for Hebrew-speakers may be necessary if a widespread presence is established in the West Bank or if Jewish settlers are more receptive than Arab Palestinians.  Only the sacrament prayers and some hymns are translated into Hebrew.

Missionary Service

No known members from Palestine have served full-time missions and no LDS missionary activity has occurred in Palestine since the mid-twentieth century.

Leadership

Potential church leadership may depend on non-Palestinians for many years due to the lack of native members.  The small group of local members in Bethlehem appears to exhibit strong leadership skills as in late 2009 one Arab Palestinian LDS convert was the Relief Society president of the Jerusalem Branch and could travel across the border into Israel because she worked for the United Nations.  

Temple

Palestine is likely assigned to the Bern Switzerland Temple district.  No organized temple trips occur from Palestine.  Border regulations, travel expenses, and long distances challenge local members from attending the temple.  Prospects for a closer small temple in the United Arab Emirates may materialize for the sparse, remote Latter-day Saint population in the region over the medium term.

Comparative Growth

Palestine has achieved some progress developing a small, local community of Latter-day Saints but their numbers remain insufficient to organize a branch.  Only Jordan and Lebanon have well-established LDS communities that provide local leadership that can sustain branches.  Palestine ranks among the few Middle Eastern nations that have had multiple LDS converts residing in their homelands in recent years; other nations include Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey.  

Most missionary-minded Christian groups have a small presence in Palestine, but gain few new converts.  Unstable political conditions, risk of violence, and cultural obstacles surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have limited the outreach and activity of proselytizing Christians. 

Future Prospects

The outlook for an official LDS Church establishment, membership growth, and organization of permanent congregations will depend on the political status of the nation state of Palestine, its relations with Israel, and the continued tolerant stance of the Palestinian Authority regarding Christian missionary groups.  High rates of emigration threaten the long-term sustainability of the tiny LDS community in Bethlehem and may result in its disappearance before an official church presence can be established.  Humanitarian and development projects carried out by the Church have alleviated suffering and may secure a positive relationship with the Palestinian Authority when LDS leaders determine to establish an official presence. 


[1]  "Palestine, 28 June 2010," Transparency International News Room, retrieved 19 January 2011.  http://www.transparency.org/news_room/latest_news/press_releases_nc/2010/2010_06_28_palestine_law

[2]  "Israel and the Occupied Territories," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148825.htm

[3]  "Israel and the Occupied Territories," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, 17 November 2010.  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/148825.htm

[4]  "Historical chronology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," 8 February 2010.  http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/58765/Historical-chronology-of-The-Church-of-Jesus-Christ-of-Latter-day-Saints.html

[5]  "Projects - Palestinian Territory, Occupied," Humanitarian Activities Worldwide, retrieved 18 January 2011.  http://www.providentliving.org/project/0,13501,4607-1-2008-261,00.html