PLO NEGOTIATIONS OFFICE
WAITING FOR THE RESURRECTION OF JUSTICE IN PALESTINE:
ACCESS, RELIGIOUS CELEBRATIONS AND THE ISRAELI OCCUPATION OF JERUSALEM.
For centuries, Jerusalem has been the political, administrative and spiritual heart of Palestine. Metropolitan East Jerusalem – a 30 km -area extending from Ramallah to Bethlehem – has long been a driving force behind the Palestinian national economy, responsible for approximately 35% of the country’s productivity. The same area also has some of the most important religious shrines of the three monotheistic faiths which over the centuries have formed an important part of the identity of both Palestine and its people.
Regrettably, with the establishment of the State of Israel, and with the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967, the situation has changed dramatically. First, Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries were extended so as to effectively annex East Jerusalem to Israel. Then, in 1980, Israel formerly annexed the area, though the United Nations has repeatedly reaffirmed the illegality of Israel’s attempt to change the legal status of the Holy City. Heeding UN Security Council Resolution 478 which provides that
all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem…are null and void…
No state maintains an embassy in Jerusalem.
Once the Occupying Power established its effective and legal control over East Jerusalem, it began carrying out several policies aimed at turning Jerusalem into an exclusive Jewish city. Revocation of residency rights, denial of building permits, home demolitions and evictions, administrative detentions, separation from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), closure of Palestinian institutions, and settlement expansion together form part of a systematic policy to ethnically cleanse East Jerusalem of its indigenous Palestinian population in order to replace it with Jewish settlers. In so doing, Israel seeks to change the demographic reality in occupied East Jerusalem, the future capital of our state, thereby putting at risk the possibility of a two-state solution.
Denying Palestine’s Christians and Muslims the ability to worship freely in Jerusalem is another way in which the Palestinian identity of the city is being threatened. Exercise of important sacred rituals and observance of religious holidays associated with Islam and Christianity have been severely restricted under the Israeli occupation regime. In particular, Israel has imposed humiliating conditions on Christian worshipers during the Easter celebrations of “Holy Fire Saturday” and Palm Sunday, and has denied Muslims access to the Haram Al Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam, during special Ramadan prayers.
Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), each human being is entitled to the right of freedom of religion which includes “freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public and private, to manifest his religion or believe in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” Even in time of war or public emergency, there is no derogation permitted from the right to freedom of religious observance and worship. Moreover, each state is required to protect people within its jurisdiction from discrimination based on religion and must ensure that persons belonging to religious minorities are freely able to practice their religion in community with others. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, Asma Jahangir, Israel is not meeting its obligations under ICCPR and other international human rights and humanitarian law: “The various restrictions imposed on Palestinians to religious sites…appear to be disproportionate to their aim as well as discriminatory and arbitrary in their application.”
What follows is an overview of the ways in which Israel’s restrictions on the freedom of worship have affected Palestinian religious life in occupied Jerusalem and pose an existential threat to some of the most ancient communities and traditions in the world.
The Isolation of Jerusalem from the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory
By design, the Israeli colonial-settlement enterprise has two aims: First, the imposition of facts on the ground that would preempt the possibility of the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state, and second, the de-Arabization of occupied Jerusalem. To this end, a ring of Jewish-only settlement-colonies surround the Jerusalem Metropolitan Area dividing it from the rest of the oPt. The Wall that Israel has constructed inside the West Bank gives permanency to and facilitates the incorporation of these settlement-colonies into Israel. Along with the physical and spacial barrier that the settlements present, Israel has imposed a closure system that prevents millions of Palestinians from the oPt from accessing the city for cultural and religious events and rituals, and educational and health-related services. The result of Israel’s settlement policy has created a sad reality: For the first time in thousands of years, the interconnected and interdependent spiritual centers of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have become totally divorced from each other.
Inside the ring of settlements (Gilo, Har Homa, Pisgat Ze’ev and Neve Ya’koub) that divide occupied East Jerusalem from the rest of the oPt, the Israeli Occupying Power has built another ring of settlements that separates the Old City from the rest of East Jerusalem in places such as Silwan, Ras al Amoud, Mount of Olives, Issawiya and Sheikh Jarrah. Such settlements are smaller, established in the middle of highly populated Palestinian areas, and host some of the most extremist settlers. According to a 2010 European Union report on Jerusalem
these activities effectively encircle and contain the Historic Basin, cut off the territorial contiguity between the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the Old City and separate the Muslim and Christian holy places from the rest of East Jerusalem.
According to the US State Department Report on International Religious Freedom for 2010, the construction of the Wall has
significantly impeded Bethlehem residents from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and [has] made visits to Christian sites in Bethany and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.
The same report states that the portions of the Wall and the checkpoints that prevent access to Jerusalem also impede “the movement of clergy between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregations between their homes and places of worship.”
The Permit Regime
In 1991, Israel inaugurated a system to restrict the freedom of movement of Palestinians within the oPt. Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank were given different identity cards to enforce these restrictions. Palestinians from the oPt, one people forming part of a single territorial unit as recognized under international law, are completely disconnected from each other.
This system of control includes checkpoints, roadblocks, earthen mounts, barriers and flying checkpoints. To be able to cross certain checkpoints, Israel has imposed a permit regime where it reserves to itself, as Occupying Power, the right to select who may pass based on arbitrary and unknown political, economic, and so called 'security’ classifications.
Permits are usually limited to certain days and hours, and must be accompanied with supporting documentation establishing some specific necessity for travel to Jerusalem, such as medical treatment, consular assistance, or appointment with a recognized international organization. Visiting relatives or friends is not a basis for the granting of a permit, and permits for worship are permitted only on certain days of the year. When a permit is granted to a person, it is usually done randomly. In addition to the vagaries associated with whether one will be able to obtain a permit, Palestinian ID holders who do obtain permits are allowed only to enter Jerusalem through 3 of the 14 checkpoints that encircle the city. These checkpoints are limited to pedestrians only. Palestinians granted special permits to enter Jerusalem are not allowed to pass checkpoints into the Holy City by car regardless of whether they are in a vehicle with Israeli, diplomatic or international organization license plates.
Even when entirely within the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), there are areas that cannot be accessed by Palestinian ID holders without special Israeli permits. These areas include part of the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, Israeli settlements, and areas labeled by the Israeli Civil Administration as “closed military zones.” Furthermore, on Jewish holidays, most of the permits are no longer valid.
Though Israel likes to claim that it has issued “thousands” of pilgrim permits to Jerusalem for the Easter and Christmas holidays, the issue for all Palestinians is more fundamental: Why should any Palestinian have to apply to the Occupying Power for the right to enter another town, village or neighborhood in their own country. Crossing the municipal boundary into East Jerusalem is not crossing an international border; it is part of a city internationally recognized as occupied and part of the Palestinian territory.
Many of those who are lucky enough to receive a permit to enter Jerusalem for special religious observances like Easter ultimately do not utilize their permits because other members of their family are likely to have been denied a permit to enter with them. For Palestinian Christians from the Gaza Strip, the situation is even more difficult as a result of Israel’s draconian siege over that area. Palestinians from Gaza face serious difficulties leaving the Strip for any reason much less for accessing Jerusalem for worship. For Easter, Israel uses random criteria for selecting the 500 persons who will receive the special pilgrim permits. To be eligible, applicants must be either over 35 years old or younger than 18, and they must obtain security clearance. In most cases, permits are granted for only one spouse.
For example, a report issued by the Jerusalem Inter Church Center about Israeli violations to freedom of worship during the Holy Week 2010 states
Christians of Jerusalem origin living in Gaza were not given permits to return to the Gaza Strip if they left. This ended up in splitting families during Easter week.
According to a source in Orthodox Benevolent Society of Gaza, in charge of coordinating the permits,
we have been trying hard to get permits for young people to get to know their heritage. It has been impossible even to get permits for some new couples to be able to go out of Gaza since (due to the siege) they did not even have the chance to have a proper honeymoon.
According to the same source, the permits are issued either the same day of the celebration or sometimes much later, making it impossible for Gazans to attend Easter in Jerusalem.
At the end, the permits are mainly used by people with relatives in the West Bank to visit them for a few days and come back since the time does not allow them to participate in the religious celebrations in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.
According to a source from the World Council of Churches in Gaza there have been many cases where people had to go to Erez (the Israeli border crossing in the northern Gaza Strip) after being notified that their names were on the list to cross. After waiting for hours they have been told to return to Gaza since their names don’t appear in their lists.
The Orthodox Benevolent Society in Gaza estimates that at least 30 Palestinians, who were told they were eligible for permits, were refused to leave Gaza in 2010.
During Ramadan, Israel excluded youth and adults between the ages of 12 and 50 from prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. As occurred during Christian celebrations, several roadblocks were established in and around the Old City of Jerusalem which turned what should be a reflective and festive month into a test of Palestinian perseverance. Fasting and tired, braving the cold, the rain, or midday blazing sun, Palestinians are forced to wait for several hours as they cross open-air checkpoints and roadblocks just to reach their Holy Places in East Jerusalem, often only a few kilometers away from their homes.
According to the latest OCHA report on East Jerusalem during the month of Ramadan in August 2010, as in past years, the majority of the Muslim population in the oPt was prevented from exercising its right to freedom of worship. Due to the restrictions on access to East Jerusalem, all of the population of the Gaza Strip and over 40 percent of the West Bank population were denied access to Friday prayers at Al Aqsa Mosque.
Israeli Interference in Palestinian Religious Celebrations
The celebration of Holy Fire Saturday and the presence of Palestinian Christians standing on the roofs to observe it above the Holy Sepulcher Plaza is a tradition of more than six centuries.
For several years, Palestinian Cristians from Jerusalem have been denied their right to freely access the roof of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, and even the Old City as a whole, for Holy Fire Saturday (also known as Holy Light Saturday), while thousands of foreign tourists from all around the world enjoy free access. Still, Palestinian Christians insist on celebrating Easter in Jerusalem which has led to clashes in the past few years. Palestinian Christian worshipers have suffered beatings at the hands of Israeli occupation forces. Because of this, the number of local Christians participating in the Jerusalem celebrations has decreased markedly over the years. Many Jerusalemites have opted to celebrate Holy Fire Saturday in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Beit Jala, where large and secure rallies are conducted.
For Palm Sunday, Palestinian Christians are forced not to raise Palestinian flags in the procession descending from Mount of Olives towards the Old City, while foreign pilgrims from all over the world may fly their national flags. Israel has threatened to cancel the parade permits or to interrupt the march of the bands of Palestinian scouts, which traditionally have participated in the Palm Sunday processions if they dare to raise the Palestinian flag.
As a matter of fact, on Palm Sunday 2010, buses carrying Palestinian Christians coming from Ramallah and Bethlehem were stopped for hours by Israeli forces, making it impossible for them to attend the celebrations. In the case of the Roman Catholic Scout troop from the Holy Family Church in Ramallah, the bus was delayed for four hours and the disappointed scouts were unable to participate in the procession.
On Good Friday when the Franciscans attempt to proceed along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for services there, Israeli security officials blocked their path just a few meters outside the Church and, according to a Jerusalem Inter Church Center report:
Israeli occupation police behaved rudely beating young Palestinian Christian women and men, to later on close the entrance to the Plaza of the Holy Sepulcher; there were no clear reasons to interrupt the traditional procession.
Though during Ramadan, Israeli occupation forces did not interfere with Muslim prayer-goers who were able to enter the Al Aqsa compound, the heavy presence of the soldiers accompanied by the roadblocks and flying checkpoints prevented many of the faithful from reaching the compound for prayers.
While the indigenous Palestinian Christian and Muslim population is submitted to discrimination while attempting to freely worship in occupied East Jerusalem, Jews from all over the world are allowed to freely celebrate in the occupied city. According to the European Union Heads of Mission report of 2010 on East Jerusalem similar restrictions are not put in place for the Jewish population during their religious holydays. Furthermore, many believers of the Christian and Muslim faiths, for various reasons, face difficulties in obtaining or extending visas, including for visiting clergy. Members of churches and religious communities as well as volunteers working for them requesting long term visas are typically subject to long, complicated and opaque procedures.
Conclusion: Turning Jerusalem into an Exclusive Jewish City.
By expanding settlements, restricting movement, confiscating IDs, demolishing homes and preventing access to Christian and Muslim holy sites, Israel’s de-Arabization campaign in occupied Jerusalem to turn the Holy City into an exclusive Jewish locale is proceeding. While Israel allows foreign tourists to freely worship at Jerusalem shrines and sacred spaces during their visit, the indigenous Palestinian population has been systemically discriminated against. Palestinians must have the right to freely access East Jerusalem.
Attempts by Israel to impose facts on the ground through settlement expansion are a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention (FGC). FGC signatories are obligated to take the necessary measures needed to end these violations. Palestinians must be able to exercise their right to self-determination over what is their historic administrative, political and spiritual capital.
Churches and civil society also have an important role to play. At the very least, they must not contribute to the economic incentives that help to sustain and consolidate Israeli control and occupation over East Jerusalem. For example, they should refuse to engage with Tour Operators that make use of settlement facilities or promote settlement products.
To achieve a just and lasting peace between two states that secures the rights of the three monotheistic religions over the city, the PLO calls for the establishment of Jerusalem as a capital for two states under the framework of an open and shared city that ensures freedom of access to holy sites for all religions.