Jerusalem acquires a chaotic, carnival-like energy during Easter as thousands of Christian pilgrims swamp the city, looking for both redemption and bargain price Holy Land souvenirs. But while devout visitors from dozens of nationalities do battle in the crowded cobbled streets, Palestinian worshipers navigate an all together different set of obstacles: Israel’s discriminatory policies.
Since the 1990s, Israel’s various movement restrictions, a combination of checkpoints, permits, and the Separation Wall, have prevented Palestinians in the West Bank from visiting churches and mosques in Jerusalem. No such restrictions exist for Jewish-Israelis living in illegal West Bank settlements, who can freely access the city whenever they want.
Such constraints on religious access feed into wider fears about the future status of a city holy to the three monotheistic faiths, and designated by the international community as a shared capital.
Father Jamal Khader, rector of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarchate, discussed the effect of Israel’s “institutionalized system of restrictions” on religious worship in an IB Times op-ed last week. He noted how Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, face severe limitations on their freedom to worship, as a result of Israeli efforts to make Jerusalem an exclusively Jewish city. Days before Easter, Israel’s ethnocentric policies were laid bare once again, as access into and out of the entire West Bank was shut down for three days during the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Since capturing East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has said it maintains a system of religious access to holy sites, which is historically unrivaled in its pluralism. From a Jewish perspective, it is true that access to Jerusalem’s holy sites is virtually unfettered compared to the past. When Jordan occupied East Jerusalem in 1948, for example, it largely destroyed the Jewish Quarter, razed dozens of synagogues, and banned Jews from entering the city.
For Palestinians, however, Israel’s occupation has brought the steady abrogation of their right to movement and religious worship in the Holy City. Indeed, since 1967, Israel has pursued policies, including annexing the city in 1980, that have sought to change East Jerusalem’s demographics, by enhancing its Jewish character and reducing the influence of Palestinian Muslims and Christians.
While recent Easter celebrations passed without affair, Israel’s exclusivist, ethno-supremacist policies over a city holy to billions of Christians and Muslims mean that religious holidays in the city can often become triggers for collective violence. Last year, during overlapping holidays for both Jews and Muslims, right-wing Jewish groups defiantly accessed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, or Temple Mount, igniting a surge in violence that has continued to this day and claimed the lives of over 200 Palestinians and around thirty Israelis.
This represents the deadliest period of violence since the Second Intifada, which was itself sparked by a visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon. For years, the status quo governing the mount has given Palestinians sovereignty over the interior of the Mount (Israel controls the Mount’s entry and exit points) and allowed Jews only limited access.
Historically, Jerusalem has been ruled by rapacious regimes eager to horde its physical space and spiritual power for themselves. The efforts have only brought political unrest and violence to the city. Israel would be wise to heed the example of history and allow Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Jerusalem meaningful freedom of worship.
“Monopolizing the city of Jerusalem will not bring peace,” Father Khader wrote. “A future of peace begins with a present of justice. Open Jerusalem for everyone, end the occupation, and let us all worship God in truth and justice.”