Israel/Palestine — June 2008

Sociopolitical Situation

Israel’s closure of Palestinian borders continues to take its toll on Palestinians. Israel has recently intensified restrictions on West Bank residents; the number of checkpoints climbed to 580 and there were nearly 360 hours of curfew in March alone. Israel’s permit system is preventing Palestinian males between 16 and 35 from traveling to other Palestinian areas. Such restrictions harm the West Bank’s wage-earning population; the unemployment rate now stands at 26 percent. About half of Palestinian households live in poverty. Women and young children are also being forced to work to help supplement family income.

With high rates of unemployment and poverty, Palestinians are finding it more difficult to afford basic necessities. The high price of oil coupled with the devaluation of the US dollar to the Israeli Shekel, has caused inflation, especially for the cost of food and fuel. Food prices in the West Bank and have risen nearly five percent. Most West Bank families can only afford to buy meat once a week and purchases of other household commodities have been reduced. Fuel shortages have also affected market prices and the ability of Palestinians to travel. The situation is particularly bad in the Gaza Strip, where most streets are virtually empty of cars and public transportation. UNWRA schoolchildren who normally take the school bus are now forced to either walk or dropout. Taxis have begun to fill their gas tanks with leftover cooking oil bought from local falafel street vendors because of the fuel shortage.

Gaza continues to get worse. UNWRA has reported that more than 80 percent of Gazans rely on external humanitarian assistance and also reported that the number of households earning less than $1.20 per person per day increased from 55 to 70 percent of the population.

In Jerusalem, a new Jewish settlement with 110 housing units is to be constructed on approximately 10 dunums of Palestinian land near Silwan (East Jerusalem). Additionally, the construction of the tramline and settlement roads through Palestinian neighborhoods further partitions East Jerusalem neighborhoods and decreases the size of their populations. Jerusalem’s Ministry of Interior has announced it will begin producing magnetic identity cards, which will affect the residency status of tens of thousands of Palestinian Jerusalemites locally and abroad.

Religious Situation

Attacks on Gaza’s Christian institutions persist. Al-Manara Baptist School was attacked by unknown gunmen who open fired and beat up two security guards. Gaza’s Y.M.C.A. was also attacked by 14 gunmen, who overpowered two security guards on duty and placed two bombs; one detonated and destroyed 8,000 textbooks and furniture. The unknown assailants escaped, however an Islamic extremist group claimed responsibility and vowed to terminate the Christian existence in Gaza. Hamas has pledged to protect Gaza’s Christian community and donated volumes of books to help rebuild the Y.M.C.A. library.

The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem filed a complaint with the Israeli Civil Administration regarding the Gilo checkpoint. Long queues and disrespectful behavior by IDF soldiers have discouraged and hampered pilgrims, bishops, priests and religious and observers. Pontifical Mission staff members have also been harassed.

This year’s HCEF program, “Children’s Journey to Jerusalem,” a Pontifical Mission co-sponsored program, was postponed. The Israeli government decided entry permits for West Bank children under the age of 13 were required. This year, about 850 children registered for the event; for most, it would have been their first visit to the city’s Christian holy sites.

Israel’s visa policy for religious clergy continues to affect the work and life of the church. A large number of Jordanian priests and nuns are still unable to travel home, are humiliated at checkpoints or have their visas cancelled or revoked, leaving several West Bank parishes priest-less. Church leaders and the pope have urged Israel to help the Christian community, ease travel restrictions for Catholic clergy and resolve issues with church property. Just recently, through Israeli court proceedings, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem regained its pre-1948 property in Bisan (Bet Shean), including 5,909 dunums or 1,460 acres of land.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate condemned the police’s treatment of the faithful during the Holy Saturday processions; thousands were prevented from entering areas within the Old City and Holy Sepulcher. Several eyewitnesses claimed that even some women and elderly men were beaten. Other churches are facing similar difficulties with the authorities; the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate’ recent building renovation was cited as a municipal violation.

The three foreign investment companies claiming to have leased the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s properties in the Old City sued the church and the current property holders for NIS five million and asked Israel’s High Court to evict them. The companies claimed the deal was in “good faith.” However, the church’s attorney did not “recognize” the lease documents.

Tourism broke all records in the beginning of the year and is still on the rise. Christian leaders expressed content with the increase in tourism, including Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who said that “pilgrimages to the Holy Land are one of the three ways to help the area and the minority group of Christians who live there.” Nevertheless, the Palestinian infrastructure is still inadequate for the pilgrims who arrive on a daily basis.

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