Israel’s Fragmentation of Christian Presence & Centuries-Old Religious Traditions in Palestine

Israel’s harassment of Palestinian Christians celebrating Holy Fire in Jerusalem is neither a new, nor a stand-off incident on its own. Rather, it is a deliberate policy that is well-documented every year. Yet, what can be considered a new escalation is the intensification of Israeli restrictions and attacks on religious rights and freedoms this year for Christians and Muslims, but not for Jewish-Israelis. For Christians this year, the restrictions included a significant limitation on the number of ‘permits’ for celebrants who are allowed in the Holy Sepulcher Church for Holy Fire Saturday, strict limitation of access to surrounding areas of the Church, preventing the access of celebrants within the surroundings of the Church, and the physical assaults on celebrants who gathered in the area.

Such intensified attacks on Palestinian Christian celebrations do not only constitute flagrant violations of religious freedoms and the right to worship, but are also actively changing centuries-old traditions that have shaped the Christian identity in Palestine and its very rich heritage.

By severing Jerusalem from the rest of Palestinian cities for decades now, the number of Palestinian Christians able to access Jerusalem has already significantly decreased, as for many thousands of Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, access to Jerusalem is very restricted to begin with – unless they obtain a ‘permit’, and manage to cross the checkpoint designated by Israel. Those who actually access Jerusalem are encountered with the annual harassment and assaults on celebrants, which contributes to further decreasing the numbers of celebrants.

Contrary to international law and calls made by the international community, such restrictions come in a context where Israel, as the occupying power, is intentionally and relentlessly altering the demography, character and the Status Quo of Jerusalem to assert the supremacy of the Israeli-Jewish character and demography.  This means that, as a result, the Palestinian Christian presence in a central city for Christianity is fragmented. On the one hand, extremist Israeli-settlers organizations are seizing Christian properties in Jerusalem for the benefit of Israel’s illegal settlements enterprise, which comes at the expense of Christian presence[1]. On the other, the arbitrary policies that Israel upholds against all Palestinians, including Christians, are a major factor why Palestinian Christian presence is fragmented in Palestine. Such policies include revocation of residency status for Palestinians, house demolitions, land confiscations to enable the construction of settlements and their infrastructure, severe restrictions on movement, violation of religious and cultural rights, arbitrary arrests, violence perpetrated by Israeli forces and settlers , among many others.

As a result of the framework of policies that dictate Israel’s occupation over the occupied Palestinian territory, including occupied and illegally-annexed East Jerusalem, not only are the most fundamental rights of Palestinians -collectively and individually- being violated on a daily basis, but also the presence of one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world, and their ancient religious traditions are also significantly threatened by Israel, which are executed with total impunity.  

[1] For example, see “Statement by the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches of Jerusalem on the Illegal Seizure of the Little Petra Hotel”, Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, 4 April 2022.


The Myth of Religious Freedoms: Israel Increases Restrictions on Palestinian Christians during Holy Week

Israel imposed the Jerusalem closure policy with the aim of blocking the physical access of millions of Palestinians from the West Bank & Gaza to Jerusalem, through the Annexation Wall, military checkpoints, the settlement enterprise and its associated infrastructure, and “administrative” barriers like the permit system. Yet, full access to Jerusalem is granted for Israeli settlers residing in Israeli settlements that are built illegally in the occupied Palestinian territory “oPt”.

The full closure and Isolation of Jerusalem from the rest Palestinian cities within the oPt has gravely impacted the Palestinian geographic integrity, social fabric, and a wide array of fundamental human rights, given that Jerusalem is central to the 3 Abrahamic religions, as well as to Palestine’s history, culture, heritage and economy. Such arbitrary closure has become the rigid norm for millions of Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians- the descendants of the oldest denominations of Christianity in the world – who have witnessed for the first time in history the Israeli-imposed separation between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, representing the main two pillars in the Christian faith: Nativity and Resurrection.

As a result, any Palestinian from the West Bank & Gaza wishing to enter Jerusalem for any reason, including worship, will have to apply for a “permit” from Israeli authorities, and if and when the permit is obtained, they can only enter through the designated checkpoints. “Entry Permits” to Jerusalem are issued by Israel’s military, and come limited in terms of time and duration. The permits are very easily revocable, and can be blocked due to “security reasons”. As such, it is difficult to challenge the permit bans since the information behind the bans are classified as “secret information”.

Every Easter, Palestinian Christians in the West Bank need Israeli permits to enter Jerusalem to be able to celebrate Holy Week in the city. Even when they do get the permits, and manage to get through the checkpoints to Jerusalem, Easter celebrations are systematically disrupted and faithful Christians celebrating it are harassed and attacked by Israeli police. With such restrictions and harassments, thousands of Palestinian Christians are practically deprived from celebrating Easter in Jerusalem.

In a context where Israel is working relentlessly to ensure the Judaization of Jerusalem, which entails the fragmentation and erasure of Palestinian history and narratives, both Christian and Muslim, and violates a wide set of Palestinian fundamental human rights in the process, including the religious rights and freedoms, Israel has recently announced that it will increase its restrictions on Christian worshippers access to the Church of Sepulcher on Holy Fire Saturday, by limiting the number of Palestinians allowed to participate in the celebratory ceremonies  to a mere 1000 celebrants, and restricting access to the surroundings of the Church. The usual capacity of the Church on Holy Fire Saturday is between 10,000 to 11,000 celebrants.

Israel’s systematic and increased restrictions on Christian celebrations during Easter are an attack on their religious rights, and threaten centuries-old Christian traditions in celebrating Easter, which are an inseparable part of the Palestinian Christian identity.

Such additional arbitrary restrictions are imposed by Israel inside occupied East Jerusalem, illegally annexed by Israel, constituting another manifest violation to international law which prohibits Israel, in its capacity as the occupying power, from taking measures that seek to change the identity and character of Jerusalem, as well as the Status Quo of the city, and considers any such unilateral alterations to be null and void[1].   

[1] UN Security Council resolutions 478 and 2334

New Brief: Israel’s Ongoing Annexation: The Continuous Expansion of the Settlement of Har Gilo

On the top of Bethlehem’s highest altitude lies the settlement of Har Gilo, built on lands belonging to Beit Jala and Al Wallajah of the occupied Palestinian territory (“oPt”). What started as a small Jordanian military base, which Israel occupied in 1967, was converted into a small civilian settlement in 1972 prior to becoming a strategic geographic factor in overtaking and controlling Bethlehem.

Har Gilo’s population growth was not a steady and natural increase, but rather an artificial one through the deliberate annexation of Palestinian lands, and Israel’s government-sponsored policy of encouraging settler population in the oPt through significant incentives.

In fact, there is a direct correlation between the land acquisition of Al-Walajah property and the population increase of the Har Gilo settlement. For example, from 1972 until 1999, the population remained below 363 settlers. It increased to 670 in 2013 and spiked to 1585 afterwards. The significant increase of settlers coincided with the 2013 decision to confiscate 1,200 dunums and designate them towards a National Park. As it stands, the population of Har Gilo numbers 1646 settlers today.

The strategic location of the settlement of Har Gilo enables the settlement to operate as a link between the areas annexed around the southern parts of Occupied East Jerusalem (namely, the Gilo settlement and the Gush Etzion settlement bloc built to the west and south of Bethlehem). Moreover, its location serves to sever the geographic contiguity between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Consequently, since its establishment, and especially after the construction of the illegal Annexation Wall, the Har Gilo settlement, along with its “area of jurisdiction”, continue to be expanded at the expense of Palestinian lands and fundamental rights.

Read full brief in PDF here

Annexing the Land of Grapes and Vines: Case Study of Al Makhrour Valley

Al Makhrour Valley is a haven-like valley in Beit Jala composed of plentiful agricultural terraces with irrigation systems dating back to the Roman period, and a rich biodiversity over the Western Aquifer Basin, one of Palestine’s most important water sources. Al Makhrour Valley is also very famous for its quality agricultural produce, mainly apricots, figs, grapes and olives.

Part of the registered UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name of “Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines: Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir”, the Valley is of outstanding universal value as the agricultural practices that were used to create this living landscape reflect one of the oldest farming methods known to humankind, and remains a vital source of livelihood for local communities. The Valley encompasses all the elements to flourish into a significant center of agricultural production as well as tourism.

Yet, Al Makhrour Valley’s huge potential is almost entirely hindered and remains restrained by the Israeli policies imposed on it over the past decades, notably though the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and their related infrastructure such as roads and movement restrictions for Palestinians. The Valley has been the subject of Israeli land annexation interests, now supported and sponsored by the US Administration, pushing for its annexation among other large parts of the occupied Palestinian territory (“oPt”). The US released its “Peace to Prosperity” plan, commonly known as the “Deal of the Century”, in late January 2020, in which Al Makhrour Valley is marked as an area that will be annexed by Israel.

This report aims at shedding light on the current Israeli policies that serve the objective of annexation in Al Makhrour, and their consequences for Palestinians, including the Palestinian Christian community, followed by an analysis of such policies under international law. The report will finally propose a number of recommendations essential in order to save Al Makhrour Valley from the threat of annexation, which is materializing at a very accelerated pace.

Report (PDF)

Latest Tool of Advancing Annexation in Areas C Israel Imposes New Arbitrary Procedures against Palestinian Planning and Housing Rights

In September 2020, the Israeli Civil Authorities (“ICA”) imposed new procedures on planning and building for Palestinians in Areas C which is expected to cause a significant spike in the already record-high numbers of house demolition cases in the oPt, in an escalated step aimed at voiding Palestinian population from Areas C through forcible displacement. The new procedures introduce an additional mandatory step preceding the building permit request: Palestinians have to submit an “information request”, which stipulates incapacitating terms before it is considered fit for mere examination by the ICA.

The new “information request” must be submitted to the ICA identifying the land where the building permit is requested. The ICA will according to this new procedure respond with designating the status of the land at its own discretion and, accordingly, if building are allowed at all. If the ICA designates the identified land as State land, confiscated land, land with standing military orders that prohibit building (also includes cases of road offset), natural reserves, archaeological sites, among other classifications- which constitute a vast percentage of lands in Areas C- then the ICA will reject the request in form, i.e. it will deny the possibility to even examine any request for building permit, and the building will be exposed for carrying out the demolition order at any time.

The new procedures also stipulate largely complicated technical requirements in the “information request”, such as the condition to have signed approvals from all the owners and inheritors of the lands since 1967, which is practically impossible due to the complications on the ownership status in Areas C as a result of Israel’s policies in these areas which make private land registration burdensome, prohibitively expensive and risky in terms of fear of Palestinian land owners to expose their lands to confiscation. Whereas the possibilities of obtaining a building permit for Palestinians in Areas C was almost never attainable before the new procedures, as per the former applicable procedures, the initiation of procedures before the ICA enabled Palestinians to freeze the enforcement of the demolition as long as procedures were ongoing, and even though it is not possible under Israeli laws to cancel demolition orders against Palestinians in Areas C, the freeze on demolition meant that Palestinians could stay for longer periods of time in their houses despite a standing demolition order. However, with this new procedure, the “information request” makes the possibility of submitting a building permit by Palestinians to the ICA practically impossible, let alone the following step of examining the permit request IF the “information request is accepted.

Moreover, the new procedures complicate the requirements the permit request even more than the already burdensome ones. Although procedural access to justice for Palestinians was extremely restricted before, the introduction of the new procedures will effectively block it and deny Palestinians entirely from the right to due course.

Although no demolitions were carried out based on the new procedures yet, their enforcement is expected to have severe impacts on the presence of Palestinians in Areas C of the oPt. The new procedures are expected to accelerate house demolition cases, and therefore, forcible transfer of Palestinians from their lands. The new procedures cannot be understood isolated from Israel’s declared objective to de jure annex Areas C of the oPt, while simultaneously advancing its de facto annexation policies on the ground, such as settlements expansion, house demolitions and forcible transfer. Annexation of occupied territory is absolutely prohibited under international law, including International Humanitarian Law (“IHL”), where no derogations or exceptions are permitted.

Under IHL, namely Article 53 of the Geneva Convention, any destruction of property not justified by absolute military necessity is strictly prohibited. Moreover, it is stipulated that extensive destruction, such as expected under the new procedures, is considered a grave breach of the conventions.

In addition, Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions entirely prohibits the forcible transfer of individuals or communities of protected persons, irrespective of motives, and considers it to be a grave breach that mounts to a war crime.
In addition, Israel’s systematic demolitions of Palestinian property and the ensuing forcible transfer in the oPt violate the right to adequate housing, protected under several bodies of international human rights law.

PDF Document: