Israel/Palestine — June 2009

Sociopolitical Situation

The 22-month closure of Gaza’s borders continues to affect all aspects of its life. The entry of food and hygiene products is largely limited. The Israelis have banned importing construction materials, gasoline, diesel and cooking gas. Most Gazans experience daily blackouts, lack potable water and have inadequate sewage treatment. Approximately 4,000 destroyed homes, schools and other public facilities have yet to be reconstructed. Two-thirds of Gaza’s approximately 1.5 million people are now dependent on international charity to meet their basic needs. Catholic and non-governmental organizations and their staff continue to face major challenges in accessing Gaza. The Israeli government allows only some international humanitarian staff persons with supplies to enter Gaza, but access is arbitrary and unpredictable. Moreover, the take-over of the Referral Abroad Department by Hamas and the subsequent decision made by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health offices in Ramallah to cease all approved or processed applications and referrals have left hundreds of Gaza’s chronically ill without access to specialized treatment outside Gaza.

The Israeli government’s measures in the Bethlehem Governate, including the separation wall, the 19 Israeli settlements and 16 outposts housing 86,000 Israelis and military checkpoints continue to make a significant impact on the lives of Palestinian families. Only 13 percent of 660 sq. kilometers of Bethlehem Governate land is available for Palestinian use and much of it is largely fragmented. Agricultural land as well as the potential for residential and commercial expansion is shrinking, particularly in Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Beit Jala is expected to lose an additional 3,200 dunums of land upon the completion of the wall, which includes olive and fruit tree groves and terraces of the only recreational forest in the area, in addition to the Cremisan Monastery and Winery and Al-Makhrour, whose lands are an important source of livelihood for Beit Jala farmers. The completed wall in Beit Sahour isolates olive groves that will only be accessible to landowners through two gates, open for a limited time during the olive harvest.

Israel continues to restrict Palestinian development in East Jerusalem. The gap between housing needs based on population growth and legally permitted construction is estimated to be 1,100 housing units per year. Thus, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are confronted with a serious housing shortage. This shortage has been exacerbated in recent years by the influx of Palestinian Jerusalemites from annexed areas outside the wall because of the real threat of losing their residency status. Because of the difficulties Palestinians encounter trying to obtain building permits, and the lack of feasible alternatives, many Palestinians build on their land without a permit and risk the demolition of their homes. At least 28 percent of all Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, home to some 60,000 Palestinians, have been built in violation of Israeli zoning requirements. At the same time, the Arab population in Jerusalem continues to grow at a faster rate than the Jewish population — 3 percent a year as opposed to 1 percent. Some 35 percent of Jerusalem’s families live below the poverty line: 23 percent are Jewish, 67 percent are Arab. Among children, 48 percent of Jews and 74 percent of non-Jews are defined as poor.

Religious Situation

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the challenges facing Palestinian Christians. The pope’s speech from Aida Refugee Camp, which was supportive of a two-state solution, was received well by both Muslims and Christians. At Pope Benedict XVI’s open air Mass in Jerusalem, some 5,000 worshipers were expected, but only 3,000 people were present. Many with tickets claimed they were turned away by Israeli authorities for no specific reason.

The issuance of visas for Christian clergy and religious continues to be problematic, especially for those born in Arab countries. The Israeli prime minister denied a request by the pope to allow 500 Arab clergy and religious entry into Israel.

Christian Palestinians are being singled out and denied access to religious sites. For the fifth year in a row, Israeli authorities erected checkpoints around the periphery of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher before the Holy Fire liturgy on Holy Saturday. For the first time, however, Israeli authorities prevented Jerusalem’s Christians free access to the compound and did not allow entrance through the gates of the Old City, in violation of the Status Quo. On the other hand, one week earlier, Israel granted access for thousands of Jewish worshipers to all Jewish religious sites in the Old City to celebrate Passover. Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem are also required by Israeli authorities to have different types of permits depending on the religious holiday. Last year, there was a decline of almost 30 percent in the issuance of permits for Bethlehem Christians compared to the year before. Both the permit system and the separation wall also prevent Bethlehem Christians from participating in traditional festivals, such as the Mar Elias feast and the procession to the Church of the Assumption in Gethsemane.

The Jerusalem Municipality issued a demolition order for a two-story addition to the Armenian Catholic Church built to accommodate visitors and other guests. The 150-year-old structure was originally built on land owned by Belgium’s royal family.

In Al-Maghar, several Christian houses and cars were vandalized, raising the concern about the renewal of religious tension experienced a few years ago between the Druze and Palestinian Christians. In Jifna, near Ramallah, at least 70 graves, as well as some Christian symbols, were desecrated in two Christian graveyards.

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