So much for freedom of religious practice: Israel allows Christians from Gaza to travel to their holy sites, but rejects similar requests from Muslims
When demanding to maintain its control over both East and West Jerusalem—and especially, over the city’s holy sites—one of Israel’s main arguments is that it allows freedom of worship in the city to members of all religions. The Knesset’s Basic Law: Jerusalem from 1980 [Hebrew link, PDF] states that the holy sites will be guarded by Israel from any harm that might prevent access to them (btw, a 2001 provision to this law states that a Knesset’s special majority is necessary for removing Israel’s authority from parts of the city, placing another barrier on reaching a two states solution – but that’s a different story).
The problem is that Israel itself is the one preventing access to Jerusalem’s holy sites. It takes a special permit for Palestinians from the West Bank to enter the city to pray, and this permit is given mostly to members of certain age groups (the official excuse, like always, is security concerns).
Israel seems to be less concerned when it comes to Palestinian Christians. In recent years, Israel has even allowed Christians from Gaza to travel to Nazareth and Bethlehem. The Palestinians had to be cleared by internal security and go through a search to their body and personal luggage, to which they all agreed.
Last February, seven Muslim women from Gaza have filed a petition [Hebrew, PDF] to the Beer-Sheva court, demanding to be granted the same rights as the Christians pilgrims. They agreed to go through the same security procedures, or whatever other means the authorities would find necessary. All they asked is to be allowed to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Gisha, an NGO which deals with freedom of movement, joined their appeal to court.
Recently, the court rejected [Hebrew, PDF] the petition and ordered the petitioners to pay legal fees in the unprecedented amount of 25,000 NIS (approx. 7,250 USD). Justice Eliyahu Bitan, who sat on the case, even made disdainful remarks toward Gisha, referring to it as a “human rights” organization (quotation marks in the original).
The court declared that even if Israel continued to control Gaza strip, it had no obligation to allow any Palestinians from the Occupied Territories to pray in Jerusalem.
This verdict demonstrated again how unwelcoming Israeli courts are to Palestinians. Equality in government practice has long been recognized as a guiding principal by the Supreme Court, but when it comes to Palestinians, the court allows policies which are based on ethnicity and religious affiliation. The decision also showed the hollowness of Israel’s pretension to be the protector of the holy sites in Jerusalem. The call for an international regime in the holy sites has never been more justified.
The third troubling aspect in the verdict is what seems like an attempt by the court to limit the work of non-governmental organizations by placing unprecedented legal fees on them – which look more like a form of fine (again, the Supreme Court has ordered in the past not to use legal fees to fine petitioners). It seems that the court wants to deter organizations and human rights group from trying to protect the rights of Palestinians through Israel’s court system.
Gisha has filed a petition [Hebrew, PDF] to the Supreme Court against the Beer-Sheva court’s verdict. I have asked the IDF spokesperson unit to outline the policy by which permits to pray in Jerusalem are given or refused from Palestinians. When I receive a reply, I’ll post it here.