Israel/Palestine — January 2009

Sociopolitical Situation

The Israel air attack on Hamas positions in Gaza and ground offensive, which have devastated Gaza’s infrastructure and people, has exacerbated an already bleak humanitarian situation as a result of Israel’s blockade of all commercial and humanitarian goods into Gaza. Prior to the war, the blockade had already caused severe shortages, especially of fuel, cooking gas and electricity supplies. Damages from the recent attacks are estimated at $2 billion, in addition to $804 million in economic losses.

The number of injuries and violent attacks on West Bank Palestinians and their property by young extremist Israeli West Bank settlers increased significantly this year, peaking during the Palestinian olive harvest.

The region is suffering from the greatest drought in a decade and future forecasts are predicting an additional three years of below-average rainfall. Drought, coupled with Israel’s disproportionate water distribution policy, continues to undermine the West Bank’s agricultural sector.

The Israeli administration has stepped up its enforcement policies to limit the number of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem. Authorities have issued or carried out more house demolitions this year while maintaining the limited issuance of building permits. To date, there are 192,000 Israeli settlers residing illegally in 12 settlements in East Jerusalem while 253,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites have been cut off from Jerusalem by the Separation Wall. For the remaining 256,820 Palestinian East Jerusalem residents, the quality of life is considerably poor. A majority (67%) of East Jerusalem families (as opposed to 21% of Jewish families) live under the poverty line. There is also a shortage of 1,500 classrooms where most schools are overcrowded and unsafe.

Religious Situation

A brawl broke out between Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox clergy in the Holy Sepulchre during an annual Armenian procession.Tension and conflict, legal and personal, between the Anglican Bishop Suheil Dawani and retired Bishop Riyah Abul-Assal continue to attract the attention of the local press.

Israel will return St. Sergei’s courtyard, an historic part of the Jerusalem’s Russian Compound, to the Russian Orthodox Church. This concludes four years of diplomatic negotiations between Russia and Israel. Some Israeli officials have expressed concern over this historic property transfer as it could pose a precedent for other important properties in Jerusalem owned by the Greek and Catholic churches. For other reinstated Russian church properties in East Jerusalem as well as in Jericho, Bethlehem and Ramallah, the Russian government plans to build Russian cultural centers and Sunday schools, which will help strengthen relations between the Russian and Palestinian people.

The issuance of visas for Christian clergy continues to be problematic, especially for priests, monks and sisters whose origins are from Arab countries. Further, Christian organizations, even those that openly support Israel, are now being threatened by the Interior Ministry’s reinstated visa issuance policy for volunteers, limiting volunteer service to 27 months. Other volunteers who have been in the country at least two years are being denied visa renewals and this has inevitably reduced staff by 50% or more.

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