Many Palestinian Christians who applied for permits to visit family and holy sites in Jerusalem for Easter have been rejected — an increasingly common occurrence in recent years.
EAST JERUSALEM, occupied West Bank —Although Najeeb al-Ezam has been one of the lucky ones who has received a permit to visit Jerusalem for Easter festivities in the past, some years he does not even bother applying.
Al-Ezam, 28, is a pharmacist from the West Bank city of Ramallah, just six miles north of Jerusalem. Despite the proximity of the two cities, he and tens of thousands of Palestinian Christians have to apply for permits to visit Jerusalem on Christian holidays.
As the Christian community prepares for Easter celebrations, which will take place on Sunday,Israel’s permit regime decides who will receive permits to travel to Jerusalem and who will not.
“It’s humiliating having to stand at a checkpoint and get yelled at by an 18-year-old soldier,” al-Ezam told MintPress News. “You cannot even say anything in response, let alone defend yourself. Some years I don’t even bother applying because of the hassle, especially the checkpoints.”
Israel severely restricts the freedom of movement for both Christian and Muslim Palestinians — including their access to holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Some200,000 Palestinian Christians are spread across present-day Israel and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. A smaller number, an estimated 3,000, reside in the Gaza Strip.
Jerusalem is home to a number of holy sites for the Abrahamic faiths. For Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which dates back to 326 A.D., is the place where Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified.
Israel claims sovereign control over the entirety of Jerusalem, but the country’s presence in East Jerusalem is illegal under international law and the international community insists the city is part of the occupied Palestinian territories.
“Why should we have to apply for permission from Israel’s occupation authorities to go to our own country?” al-Ezam remarked.
Roadblocks and checkpoints
Even in Jerusalem, Palestinians say the hassles don’t end.
“The Israeli police closed off all the entryways to the church last year and started pushing [Palestinians], allowing only the foreigners to pass,” al-Ezam said.
Israeli forces closed the entrances around 1:00 p.m. last year, violating an agreement between local Christian groups. Police officerswere filmed beating several of those who were present.
Yet attempts are underway to prevent such violence during this year’s celebrations.
Along with the heads of several churches, Palestinian Christians in occupied East Jerusalemhave filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice, requesting that police remove the excessive roadblocks and checkpoints in and around the historical Old City. The high court has yet to respond to the petition, opting, instead, to postpone it for the time being.
Petitioners claim that Israel’s strict security checks of worshippers attempting to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other holy sites on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, have been increasingly invasive since 2006. Last year, Israeli police clashed with Christians in the Old City.
Speaking to theIsraeli daily Haaretz, a police spokesperson defended the roadblocks and checkpoints, arguing that the barriers were designed to “assure the security of the many participants, as is done for other events in which it enables all religions freedom of worship, subject to the law and maintenance of public order.”
The Civic National Coalition in Jerusalem is a Palestinian group that advocates for the rights of the indigenous Palestinian population in the city. Last Sunday, the group issued an open letter to the international community demanding that Israel not hinder Palestinians’ access to holy sites.
“The Israeli policy of harassment against Palestinian Christians during Easter has nothing to do with security,” the letter states. “It is purely motivated by political interest, i.e., the intention to affirm the situation of Israeli-Jewish domination in occupied East Jerusalem that has been created through the gross and systematic violation of international humanitarian and human rights law.”
Jewish Israelis — many of whom live in settlements considered illegal under international law — do not face the same restrictions for accessing holy sites. In places throughout the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the military often escorts and protects Jewish worshippers.
A local Palestinian organization, the Ma’an Center for Development and Progress, posted a video on YouTube detailing the stories of several Palestinian Christians who have been victims of police brutality in Jerusalem.
Palestinian Christians who do not hold Israeli-issued Jerusalem residency cards must apply to military authorities for a permit to enter the city.
Last year, Najeeb al-Ezam was the only person in his four-member family denied a permit to visit the city for Easter. The year before, his father and brother were denied permits, while he and his mother both received permits.
Although Israeli authorities often justify permit rejections by pointing to security, the al-Ezam family has no history of arrests or political involvement. “We have had absolutely no problems or trouble with Israel ever,” al-Ezam said.
“It’s hard when we are not able to go together to visit our relatives living in Jerusalem. And if it’s not a holiday, it is almost guaranteed that none of us will get a permit to visit [relatives in Jerusalem] at all.”
Although most Christian applicants can only obtain permits for either Christmas or Easter, many families run into the same problem as the al-Ezam family.
Yousef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center, told MintPress that not granting permits to every member of a family who applies has been increasingly common in recent years.
“These types of cases used to only happen to Gazan families, but it’s been happening much more in the West Bank throughout the last two years,” Daher said. “The authorities will give only part of the family a permit as a way of discouraging them from going at all.”
Daher said that around 3,500 Christians living in Bethlehem applied for permits to visit Jerusalem this year. Of the total, only around 20 percent had received permits as of Thursday, just two days before the first holiday celebration.
On top of that, no Christians from Gaza have yet been granted entry permits, he added.
“Normally, there are around 500 permits given to Christians from Gaza, but so far, we haven’t seen any this year,” Daher said. “When they do get permits, Gazans also usually only get permits for part of the family.”
In recent years, several Israeli politicians — including Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have attempted to paint Israel as a defender of Christianity at a time when Christians have grown increasingly marginalized in countries across the Middle East.
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, has made similar claims.
Israel,Oren wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2012, “allows holiday access to Jerusalem’s churches to Christians from both the West Bank and Gaza.” He also claimed that Christians have flourished under Israeli rule.
But Rifat Kassis, general coordinator of Kairos Palestine, a group of Palestinian Christian activists, categorically rejects these claims.
“I would start by asking, ‘Who said we want to be treated special in the first place?’” Kassis said. “We do not want to be distinguished from our Muslim compatriots. We are all under the same occupation and suffer the same conditions.”
Israel’s attempts to differentiate according to faith, Kassis added, are “part of a divide-and-conquer tactic… partially because Netanyahu and company understand that Palestinian Christians can communicate our message to Christians across the world.”
Ahead of the holiday, Kairos Palestine released an “Easter Alert,” which details the restrictions that all Palestinians, including Christians, face under Israel’s occupation. The alert also calls on the world to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement until Israel complies with international law.
“Palestinian Christians reject this narrative that this is a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims,” he said. “It’s about land, and Palestinian Christians and Muslims are standing on the same front fighting for their rights.”
Follow Patrick O. Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_