Israel/Palestine — January 2006

Sociopolitical situation

Under Abu Mazen’s internal reform agenda, referring to 2005 as “the year of Palestinian reform,” the Palestinian Authority (PA) has made security, financial and electoral reforms. National, municipal and local elections have taken place throughout the year, even under occupation. The PA and its security forces have struggled to maintain internal security due to Fatah militants. Anarchy continues as masked gunmen have sporadically clashed with PA security forces, fired Qassam rockets and kidnapped several foreigners working in Gaza.

The “tahdia” or ceasefire agreed to by Hamas and other small Palestinian factions expired on December 31st and they expressed their reluctance to renew it. The PA legislative elections are scheduled for January 25th; Israel accepted to allow certain candidates to campaign in East Jerusalem. In the recent municipal elections, Hamas has controlled the Palestinian political agenda and won seats in large cities such as Nablus, Qalqilia, Bethlehem, and Ramallah. Hamas has recently shown its willingness to cut political deals in the electoral process and support opponents of Fatah in order to weaken the Fatah party.

After the evacuation and dismantlement of the settlements in Gaza, the PA and Israel came to a ground-breaking agreement in November that authorized European monitors to supervise Palestinian security matters at the Rafah border crossing. Elsewhere in the Gaza Strip, economic growth in Gaza remains steadfast. Greenhouses in the former settlement of Gush Katif are currently being used by Gaza export production companies to ship produce to Israel and abroad, revitalizing economic growth. The PA Ministry of Planning plans to construct three new university campuses on what were the former settlements of Neve Dekalim, Morag, and parts of Nezerim, providing Palestinians access to higher education.

The current economic situation is slowly recovering from the onset of the Intifada in 2000. According to a recent World Bank report published in December, “today’s Palestinian economy still operates at well below its potential standing, with real GDP per capita almost 30% lower than in 1999. The inability of the Palestinian economy to fully use its productive potential is first and foremost the result of restrictions on the movement of people and goods.” In addition, the unemployment rate stands at 23% (20% in the West Bank and 29% in Gaza) and has “more than doubled pre-Intifada levels.”

The Separation Wall construction continues and continues to divide Palestinian areas; for example, at the Anata Secondary School on the outskirts of Jerusalem the wall cuts off half of the school’s playground into Pisgat Ze’ev settlement. Construction and implementation of crossing terminal checkpoints has intensified in recent months; Palestinians and their goods are subject to searches and long queues. Access issues remain an embedded problem. With peace talks between the PA and Israel at a standstill, more and more the wall seems to be an international border and the terminal checkpoints, “international” crossing points.

Settlement growth continues with the construction of 200 new homes in Ma’ale Adumim and two building projects in Betar Illit and Givat Ze’ev approved by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz in mid-December for the controversial “E1” plan. The plan seeks to expand Jewish settlements east of Jerusalem and include them within the city’s municipal boundaries.

Religious Situation

Theophilos III was enthroned as the new Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem on November 22nd after his election by the Holy Synod on August 22nd. Israel voiced disapproval of the move, describing it as “a serious impropriety” and has denied recognition of the new patriarch. Further, President Katsav hosted a Christmas reception for heads of Christian churches, inviting the former Patriarch, Irineos; others attended on condition that Patriarch Irineos not speak on behalf of the Christian heads.

Thousands flocked to Bethlehem to celebrate Christ’s birth and participate in Christmas festivities. Around 30,000 Christian pilgrims attended. The number of Christian pilgrims and tourists in Bethlehem still remains small in comparison to before September 2000. (An average of 91,726 tourists visited Bethlehem on a monthly basis in 2000). According to PASSIA, the total Christian population of Israel in 2005 currently stands at 116,700.

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