Israel/Palestine — June 2007

Sociopolitical Situation

Fighting between Hamas and Fatah militants has created unprecedented internal violence in the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, access and movement restrictions continue to isolate Palestinians. A consequence of the Separation Wall, now 58 percent complete, is the continued confiscation of Palestinian land.

South of Bethlehem, in Artas village, Israeli Defense Forces have already confiscated private agricultural land as well as land from Artas Sisters’ Monastery, claiming it a closed military zone for the Separation Wall. The monastery has experienced previous damage to its walls and has lost some 30 dunums of land for the expansion of the nearby Efrat settlement and the greater Gush Etzion settlement block. Settlement expansion also continues north of Bethlehem district, where the Israeli government has announced plans to build 20,000 houses for ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers near Jerusalem with an additional 500 housing units in Abu Dis. The project is intended to connect Gush Etzion settlement block along with other settlements north of the city to further ensure Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Israel continues to maintain policies to decrease the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem. Family reunification cases are still problematic, especially for West Bank spouses. Since 2001, very few or no Jerusalem ID’s have been granted and those waiting to apply have had to renew a temporary permit. These “temporary residents” are for example, ineligible for Israeli health insurance or drive a car in Israel. Catholic clergy of Arabic origin (200 to 250 cases) have difficulty getting even a one-entry visa and have to undergo lengthy background checks, especially for those coming from Lebanon and Syria.

Israel’s Municipal Welfare Department reported in May 2007 that 62% of East Jerusalem’s residents live below the poverty line and 75.8% of children live in poverty. School dropout rates have increased and some youth are now seen working on the streets or in local shops. East Jerusalem children have been seen scavenging in garbage bins for recyclables to sell.

East Jerusalem tourism is slowly recovering from the sudden economic downfall in 2000, but not Bethlehem. Tourists and pilgrims no longer stay overnight there, impacting tax revenue. The municipality will have to lay off 165 municipal workers. Other West Bank municipalities are virtually bankrupt and unable to provide government services since the suspension of aid to the Hamas-backed Palestinian Authority. Unemployment and poverty have also affected crime rates, such as in Ramallah, where thefts and more serious cases of crime have risen by 200%.

Palestinians are feeling less secure and optimistic about the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In a recent public opinion poll conducted by Najah University in Nablus, 92% of Palestinians feel insecure for themselves, their families or their properties and 74% feel that the current unity government isn’t capable of ending the security instability.

Religious Situation

In March, Israel demanded that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate conduct a census of all church property ahead of the sale or long-term lease and authorize Israel the right to refuse the property.

A US $150-million, large-scale outdoor shopping mall is currently being built at the foot of the hospice of St. Vincent de Paul, which is located outside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate. Once complete, the mall’s main building complex will completely surround the hospice, convent and church, isolating its 150-200 residents, all of whom are mentally and physically handicapped children and adults.

Beit Sahour’s Greek Orthodox Housing Project has once again received a demolition order from the Israeli Defense Forces, citing that the entire housing project was built without a permit and is threatening to demolish it for the path of the Separation Wall. The housing project was legally built on land leased by the church and currently provides affordable housing for 120 poor Palestinian Christian families. In 2003, the Israeli Defense Forces confiscated 300 dunums of church property filled with olive and apricot trees for a “security buffer zone” in the same area.

On 9 May, an Islamicist fundamentalist outreach movement, Jihadia Salafiya, hurled grenades at a United Nations school in the Gaza Strip after the school held a boys and girls sports event. The group believed the school was “spreading Christian missionary activity – through an international organization.”

In a recent study by Haifa University (conducted between September 2000 and December 2003), researchers found a stark difference between the opinions of Catholic and Protestant pilgrims. The study revealed that 27 percent of Catholics said they hesitated to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land during a security crisis because of the what they saw on the news, compared to just 16 percent of Protestants.

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