Palestine — June 2010

Sociopolitical Situation

Israel continues to blockade the Gaza Strip, allowing only imports from a list of about 114 basic items and has banned nearly all exports through its land borders. Recovering from what was lost in Israel’s “Cast Lead” offensive early last year and enabling Gaza’s economy to recover and develop is nearly impossible. Several hundred underground tunnels provide goods and commodities via Egypt, which stock shelves and promote small-scale business. The goods also provide Gaza’s government with income; Hamas imposes taxes on all smuggled goods and charges administrative fees for tunnel operators.

Israeli retaliatory airstrikes and militant rockets fired into Israel continue to damage or destroy smuggling tunnels as well as injure or kill dozens of Palestinians, damage homes and destroy agricultural lands. In the aftermath of the Israeli response to the six flotilla ships that attempted to break the blockade of Gaza, the Egyptian government announced it is temporarily lifting its side of the Gaza blockade, allowing some goods and people to pass through the Rafah border crossing.

The Gaza Strip continues to lack commodities, such as industrial fuel, which Israel still bars from entering Gaza’s border entries. Gaza’s sole power plant generates one-third of its electricity and is currently operating only half the time with scheduled power cuts between 8 to 12 hours a day, disrupting daily life, including household chores, health services, education and water and sanitation services. Gazans are forced to rely extensively on backup generators and other alternative devices.

Half of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are jobless. Poverty affects more than three-quarters of the population. Unemployment and poverty are concentrated in Gaza’s eight refugee camps. After years of unemployment, most Gaza families have depleted their savings and other resources. More than half rely on foreign aid. Moreover, two out of three Arab banks in the Gaza Strip have closed under the current economic constraints.

In an unprecedented move, Hamas has demolished 20 Palestinian homes in Rafah and another 180 are slated for demolition in various parts of the southern Gaza Strip. The government claims the houses were built illegally on government land.

Small, radical Islamist groups have gained strength in the Gaza Strip, calling for Hamas to enforce strict Islamic practices among the general population, including the segregation of males and females, the modest dressing of women and the prohibition of acts perceived as “Western.”

Israel’s restrictions on access continue to fragment and isolate the West Bank, having a detrimental impact on Palestinians. Such restrictions continue to be most prevalent in Area C — which comprises 61 percent of all West Bank land and has a population of around 150,000 Palestinians, where Israel maintains full civil and military control. Deemed by the humanitarian community as a ‘high-risk’ area, Area C suffers higher rates of unemployment and poverty than other populous West Bank areas. In addition, drinking water and sanitation facilities are severely lacking while homes and other infrastructure are continuously under constant threat of demolition and displacement by the Israeli Civil Administration.

Israeli settlers in the West Bank have intensified harassment, intimidation and violence against Palestinians and their properties in the West Bank. Some Jewish settler groups have begun harassing Bedouin communities in the Jordan Valley, who already face the threat of eviction, demolition and displacement by the Israeli government. Other vulnerable groups include some 70,000 West Bank Palestinians and internationals residing in the West Bank who are under the threat of being arrested or deported under a new Israeli military order, Prevention of Infiltration, which deems those residing illegally in the West Bank as “infiltrators.”

Settlement construction and expansion continues despite the government’s 10-month settlement freeze and resumed proximity talks between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s two-year unilateral state-building plan, which calls to build Palestinian infrastructure and establish institutions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is underway in preparation for another declaration of Palestinian statehood by August 2011.

Settler violence has also become more prevalent in East Jerusalem, especially near the Old City of Jerusalem. Jewish settlers are backed by a number of right-wing settler organizations and individuals and indirectly receive support from the Jerusalem municipality and the Israeli government. They are quick to realize the opportunity to buy or seize real estate properties in order to create ideological tourism sites that bolster Jewish identity. In fact, settlers control some 119 structures and compounds inside East Jerusalem neighborhoods and East Jerusalem Jewish settlements already house some 150,000 settlers.

The Israeli government continues to process its plans to build an additional 50,000 housing units in East Jerusalem. Most recently, the Israeli government announced the establishment of a new settlement, Giv’at Ya’el, which will house 45,000 Israelis, appropriating Al-Walaja village land in order link the settlement to the Gush Etzion settlement block. The current Israeli government has launched an outspoken, controversial political campaign to change the Arab character of East Jerusalem in order to prevent it becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Palestinian land in East Jerusalem is rapidly shrinking. Only 13 percent is currently zoned for Palestinian development; most of it is already built up. Municipal house demolitions claim homes and disrupt lives. Last year, 80 Palestinian homes were demolished, displacing around 300 people.

Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents, who consist of 36 percent of Jerusalem’s population, continue to suffer from a severe state of discrimination and neglect by government authorities. Poverty has risen since last year; almost 67 percent of Palestinian families live in poverty and 74 percent of East Jerusalem’s Palestinian children live below the poverty line (95,000 children). According to recent data, less than half of all East Jerusalem school-aged children actually attend school and there is a shortage of at least 1,000 classrooms. East Jerusalem Palestinians, including the disabled and the elderly, are completely underserved. Only three municipal social service stations operate in East Jerusalem, while 20 comfortably serve those in West Jerusalem. Sanitation in East Jerusalem is very poor; most neighborhoods do not receive garbage collection services and many lack suitable dumpsters. East Jerusalem has a shortage of drainage sewage pipes, leading to an overflow of raw sewage on some streets.

Religious Situation

Only 1 percent of the population of the West Bank and Gaza, perhaps 40,000 persons, are Christian. Emigration continues to empty historic Christian centers such as Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Ramallah.

Palestinian Christians assert that, in the last two years, there has been a change in Israeli security measures during Easter: Fewer permits have been issued and security measures severely restricted locals’ access to the holy sites, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Christian leaders warn that the number of participants has declined; no more than a few hundred Palestinian Christians made it to the ceremony of Holy Fire this year. With such measures in place, centuries-old traditions are slowly dying out.

The tourism industry is on the rise in the Holy Land according to the Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Police. This Easter, there was an increase by 50 percent in the number of tourists that traveled to the West Bank. A majority of the foreign tourists are Catholic pilgrims alongside increasing numbers of Orthodox pilgrims from Eastern Europe.

East Jerusalem’s Palestinian Christians continue to face difficulties when applying for family unification for relatives and spouses — difficulties that contribute to the emigration of Palestinian Christians from the Holy Land. Israeli law also strips Israeli identity from Arabs who leave the country for more than seven years, including students. On the other hand, the Israeli government recently adopted a policy that will give its Jewish citizens living abroad for six or more years a “newly arrived immigrant status,” which entails generous tax exemptions and health benefits upon their return to Israel.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, is currently attempting to prevent the implementation of the scandalous land policies of his predecessor, who leased church-own properties in Jerusalem and the West Bank for tens of billions of dollars to Jewish right-wing organizations, which in turn set up Jewish settlements. If the patriarch is unable to stop the land deals from proceeding, it could permanently alter Jerusalem’s political landscape. The Greek Orthodox Church owns 40 percent of the property in the Old City of Jerusalem and is the single largest private owner of land in Jerusalem. The relationship between the patriarch and the local Greek Orthodox community also remains tense; the patriarchate was perceived to have endorsed indirectly Israeli strict security measures during this year’s Easter celebration, which largely prohibited the faithful from accessing the holy sites and celebrating Easter.

The Latin Patriarchate, the Lutherans and the Franciscans, have embarked upon several housing projects to provide East Jerusalem’s local Christian community with affordable housing. These projects are of great importance as East Jerusalem continues to suffer from an acute housing shortage, which is exacerbated by Israeli government policies that seize more land and property in the eastern part of the city as well as its strict permit allowances for East Jerusalem residents.

The Al-Aqsa Foundation for Endowment and Heritage recently voiced its concern over the Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeological excavations at Sultan’s pool — an Islamic historical site that bears evidence to Islamic and Arab civilization in Jerusalem. The pool is located in Silwan, which Israeli historians call the City of David, which they believe to be the site of the first Jewish community in the area. Silwan continues to be heavily excavated by the authorities, resulting in cave-ins and the displacement of Palestinian families. The Israeli authorities are also attempting to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem properties administered by the Islamic Trust.

Bethlehem’s checkpoint continues to be problematic with increased security measures and long queues in the terminal. Passengers are forced from their vehicles to walk on foot for security checks in the terminal while drivers must provide documentation to soldiers. Local families are forced to walk on foot, pass through metal detectors and search stations, wait in long queues and expect delays at the gate that last some 90 minutes during opening hours. For example, a Christian teacher needing to reach her classroom in Jerusalem before the start of the school day must be at the checkpoint’s terminal at 6 a.m.

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