The Israeli government's restrictions on Muslims and Christians performing their religious rights in occupied Palestinian lands is at a legally and ethically unacceptable level.
Orthodox Christians celebrated the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in occupied East Jerusalem on April 23, against a backdrop of rising tensions with Israel, which imposed new restrictions on attendance this year in an attempt to alter a ceremony that has been held for centuries. In addition, the occupied holy city has already witnessed a week of tensions between Palestinians and Israeli police at the nearby the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound as tensions flared after Israeli police violently entered the compound when worshippers gathered for early morning prayers. Israeli forces facilitated incursions by far-right Zionists to the holy site. More than 300 Palestinians were arrested and at least 170 wounded in the clashes.
Just like what Muslims face in their worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Christians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are denied their basic religious freedoms and are routinely prohibited from traveling to worship in one of the most holy sites in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the church commemorates Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection from the dead. Israeli authorities this year allowed only 4,000 people to attend the Holy Fire ceremony, while around 11,000 people were attempting to attend the ceremony.
“Imposing restrictions and limiting the number of worshippers during the celebration of at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a flagrant violation of the freedom of worship and the right to practice one's religion,” said the parliamentarians of the Joint List, a political alliance of four of the Arab-majority political parties in Israel. “It is also a new chapter in the series of Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.” The Arab bloc also said that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's government does not spare any effort to limit the Palestinian participation in activities taking place in Jerusalem as it attempts to separate the holy city from the other occupied Palestinian territories.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned earlier of the danger of the Israeli decision to impose restrictions on the entry of Christian worshipers to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the presidential spokesperson of the Palestinian Authjority (PA), said that “the decision is a continuation of the Israeli escalation against the city of Jerusalem and its sanctities, and coincides with the continuous incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Zionist extremists under the protection of the Israeli occupation forces.” He added that the decision was “a blatant and dangerous challenge to the heavenly religions and their sanctities, a provocation and a disregard for all human and religious values.” Rudeineh described the Israeli crackdown on the Islamic-Christian presence as “a war against the Palestinian people and Jerusalem and its sanctities, and it is another violation of the historical status quo in the holy city.”
While East Jerusalem is home to major holy sites, the Israeli government has institutionalized restrictions for Palestinians who wish to travel to worship. This institutionalized system includes permits, permanent checkpoints, roadblocks, gates, closed roads and barriers. Additionally, each month the Israeli military puts in place several hundred temporary checkpoints that change location from day to day and are used to control Palestinians' movement.
Muslims and Christians have been impeded from accessing religious sites to worship for decades. This is illustrated by the daily hardship endured to attend services at the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the discrimination and repression against Palestinians is highly concentrated.
The same restrictions apply to the occupied West Bank when it comes to Palestinians accessing the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This year's Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, specifically underlined the difficulty of Muslims who were blocked from entering East Jerusalem to pray.
Freedom of religion
Israel as an occupying power owes obligations to Palestinians to protect their rights and freedoms under international humanitarian law. These protections explicitly include freedom of religion through religious observances, services and rites. The Israeli government continues to apply travel restrictions that impeded access to particular places of worship in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians.
The right of freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has been reaffirmed by the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, which was approved by the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) in 1981. This fundamental right is also protected by several instruments of international law, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The article states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
The control of Palestinian movement has been a feature of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territory since its inception in 1967. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, the occupied Palestinian territories were proclaimed closed military zones. In 1972, the general exit orders were issued allowing residents of those territories to move freely between the West Bank, Israel and Gaza. In 1991, these general exit orders were revoked, and personal exit permits were required.
With the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada, referred to as the “uprising” in 2000, Israel imposed a comprehensive closure on the occupied territories and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) used the permit system more vigorously. Every Palestinian had to obtain an individual permit and the military checkpoints were established along the Green Line – the internationally recognized demarcation line between the West Bank and Israel – and movement from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to and from occupied East Jerusalem became more difficult and often impossible. This situation remained to this day. However, from time to time, following acts of violence and during Israeli holidays, Israel places a comprehensive closure on the occupied territories and cancels entry permits.
In September 2005, Israel completed its unilateral disengagement plan and announced an end to Israeli martial law in the Gaza Strip. However, Israel retained control of Gaza’s Sea and air space, the crossings between Gaza and Israel, and Gaza’s registry of population. In June 2007, after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza, prohibiting both Palestinian travel to or from Gaza.
Over the past years, Israel’s permit system has imposed obstacles and denied Palestinian basic rights of their religious freedom. Permits became a bureaucratic nightmare as obtaining one became a complicated and long procedure that had to be completed with the Israeli administration.
Under the Israeli military occupation, the repression has become the worst in history. It’s a sophisticated form of social, economic, political and racial discrimination, strangulation and genocide. It incorporates the worst elements of colonialism and apartheid as well as repressive dispossession, displacement and state terrorism to separate Palestinians from their land and heritage. It denies Palestinians’ warranted civil and human rights to worship freely and gradually aims to remove or eliminate them altogether.
The article was first published by Daily Sabah.