Only in the West Bank do we have Freedom to Worship

Our EAs this year provided protective presence and monitored the human rights situation throughout the Easter celebrations. This is the final account from our EAs sharing from Easter 2014 in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

by Liam, Bethlehem team

God sent his son to Bethlehem to get people to love God…but he didn’t say anyone needed permission”

As the 52nd EAPPI team in Bethlehem, we found our first week in placement coincided with Easter; a momentous occasion for Christians around the world but especially so for those living in the Holy Land. We were walking not far from our house, by ‘Ayda refugee camp, when a woman called out to us from her car.

“Hello! You are the new team; you must come to my house. My name is Antoinette. You like coffee? I make you coffee! You like cake? I make you cake too!”

As we have quickly found, one thing Palestinians are not in short supply of is hospitality. Here, sharing tea and coffee is a declaration of friendship. How could we refuse such a kind offer? Sitting in her house, we were introduced to her brother and sister-in-law, her nieces and nephews, their children and offered two types of cake, particular to Easter: ka’ek bi ajwa and ka’ak bi ma’moul

We spoke with Antoinette Knezevich on Thursday  April 17, the day before Good Friday, and discovered she was still waiting for her permit to be able to travel to Jerusalem for Easter celebrations. Antoinette used to teach at Schmitt College just outside of the Old City in East Jerusalem but, when the Separation Barrier was built by the Israelis; she was no longer permitted to drive to work and is not physically able to walk the distances required to pass through Checkpoint 300 – which cuts Bethlehem off from Jerusalem though they are a mere 7kms (or 4.4 miles) away from each other. Now she lives with her brother and his family, close to ‘Ayda refugee camp, with the Separation Barrier and its cameras looking into their kitchen.

The Permit Lottery

Cameras on the separation barrier look directly into Antoinette's window. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Cameras on the separation barrier look directly into Antoinette’s window. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

Antoinette described how, before the permit system, she used to attend St. George’s Cathedral, the Anglican church in Jerusalem, and tended to the garden there:

“My husband and I were members of the church…my husband had a British passport because his father [Alexander Antonio Knesevich) was the first British Consul to Gaza during the British Mandate for Palestine”.

As is Antoinette’s case, if you have a Palestinian ID, Israel requires you have a permit even if you have an international passport. She continued:

“But since the building of the Wall I cannot anymore go to Jerusalem and to the church there. So flowers now make me sad. Can you imagine?”

Antoinette explained the process of applying for permits to worship:

“We are catholic and the priest took all the names and gave them to the Israelis and some got permits and some not. The husband might but not the wife – you see what they do?”

Individuals cannot apply for worship permits and are “awarded” permits much akin to a lottery yet preventing people access to worship is in contravention of International Humanitarian Law. Her brother and his wife succeeded but Antoinette did not. Antoinette questioned us:

“Since Jesus was here, we have been here. Do you need permission to visit the Church by your government? Where’s the justice?”

Two EAs converse with Antoinette. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

Two EAs converse with Antoinette. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton.

The Catholic Church in Bethlehem requested 5000 permits for the Easter period and received just 700 from the Israeli District Coordination Office, which were given across families forcing them to make the decision between only some of the family visiting the holy sites in Jerusalem or the whole family forfeiting the possibility. Antoinette decried:

“God sent his son to Bethlehem to get people to love God…but he didn’t say anyone needed permission”.

Freedom to Worship

Antoinette told of how Muslims and Christians live peacefully with each other, with Muslim families even sharing Santa gifts at Christmas and coloured eggs at Easter:

“They respect us and we respect them. Near my home are Muslim neighbours and we have no problems. The only problem is the occupation.”

Stood on her balcony, looking out towards the stark grey wall with its imposing watching presence; Antoinette shared:

“When they built the wall, it was like they built it on my heart…too heavy”. Her gaze dropped then and she looked deep in thought then quietly but firmly said: “It is like they took me up from the root of myself and threw me away”.

Antoinette points out the separation wall in front of her home. The wall now cuts her off from accessing Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

Antoinette points out the separation wall in front of her home. The wall now cuts her off from accessing Jerusalem. Photo EAPPI/L. Hilton,

We worked Checkpoint 300 on the morning of Holy Saturday, greeting and wishing a “Happy Easter” to those passing through. Later in the afternoon, we saw many of the same people in Beit Jala for the parade to welcome the miraculous light from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When we asked why they were in Beit Jala and not the Old City, we were told how the Israeli administration had put the Christian Quarter on lockdown so, despite being some of the lucky few to receive a permit, they were still not allowed to enter the holy sites and engage in worship.

One man said: “Only here do we have freedom to worship”.

Clashes as Passover, Friday Prayer and Easter collide

Our EAs this year provided protective presence and monitored the human rights situation throughout the Easter celebrations. In the coming days, we’ll share with you accounts of Easter 2014 in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

by David, Lindsey, Sandra, and Lynn, Jerusalem team

This year Jewish Passover, and both the Orthodox and Western Christian Easters fell on the same week. On Good Friday, tensions rose as Christian processions along the Via Dolorosa and Muslims going on their way to Al Aqsa mosque occurred at the same time. Unrest primarily occurred near Al Aqsa when Israeli authorities restricted access to the compound to worshippers under the age of 50.

Additionally, earlier in the week, the leader of The Temple Movement, a Jewish extremist movement that wants to build a new temple, encouraged their followers to flow in and celebrate Passover at the al-Aqsa compound. When the Jewish extremists heard their call and came into the compound, violence broke out between Muslims and Israeli police. As a result, the gates leading to the mosque were closed denying men, women, and schoolchildren from entering the area. As a result of these clashes, twenty-five people were injured.

The following is a Photo Essay of Good Friday Easter 2014.

PHOTOS: Palm Sunday Celebrations in Jerusalem & Bethlehem

Thousands of Christians from all over the world come to Jerusalem and participate in the annual Palm Sunday March. Sadly, many Christians from the West Bank and Gaza do not attend. Often their permissions to enter Jerusalem arrive late. Even for those with permission, crossing checkpoints inhibits freedom of movement, something you don’t want to experience on a celebratory day.

As tensions rise, when will the international community say enough is enough?

In recent weeks, tensions have risen in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Six Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. Palestinians mourned the deaths. Violence between Gaza and southern Israel renewed. At the same time, tension increased at Al-Aqsa mosque as Israeli forces closed access for worshippers.

by Jerusalem team

Worshippers pray outside an Israeli military flying checkpoint in the Old City streets when not allowed access to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Worshippers pray outside an Israeli military flying checkpoint in the Old City streets when not allowed access to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

In recent months Israeli settlers have continuously harrassed the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third most holy site for Muslims. In one instance, Israeli settlers entered into the mosque area with the support of Israeli forces and tried to take an Israeli flag inside the mosque, which then turned into clashes with Palestinians.

As EAPPI monitors we have witnessed heavy military and police presence in the Old City of Jerusalem especially during Friday prayers; a presence that contributes to an atmosphere of tension.

On Friday February 28 Israeli military closed access to pray in the Al-Aqsa mosque for thousands of men under 50 years old. In a peaceful response, worshippers lined the streets of the Old City to pray, despite heavy military presence.

Israeli forces closed access to Al Aqsa mosque for men under the age of 50. 28 February 2014. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Israeli forces closed access to Al Aqsa mosque for men under the age of 50. 28 February 2014. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Again, on Friday March 14 men under 40 were blocked from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers. Israeli forces set up flying checkpoints within and outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Israeli military inspected the IDs of Palestinians and turned many away, forcing them to pray in the streets.

Israeli soldiers set up a flying checkpoint in the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday. They check the IDs of Palestinians before granting access to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Israeli soldiers set up a flying checkpoint in the Old City of Jerusalem on Friday. They check the IDs of Palestinians before granting access to pray at Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

In the past week, Palestinians mourned after six people were killed in the West Bank and three in Gaza. Many of the demonstrations turned into clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces. On Tuesday March 11, EAPPI monitors witnessed a peaceful protest in front of the Damascus Gate in memory of the killed Palestinians and for the right to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Israel’s Military Order 101, dating back to 1967, prohibits all gatherings of 10 or more persons “for a political purpose” unless they have received authorization in advance under a permit issued by the Israeli military commander in the area. Without this, there is a threat of imprisonment for up to 10 years and/or a grave fine, according to a recent Amnesty report.

Soldiers position outside Damascus gate during a demonstration against the killing of Palestinians and for the right for access to pray in Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Soldiers position outside Damascus gate during a demonstration against the killing of Palestinians and for the right for access to pray in Al Aqsa mosque. Photo EAPPI/K. Ranta.

Tuesday’s events reflected this military order. After 10 minutes of the demonstration minutes, Israeli riot police started to shoot sound grenades into the middle of the crowd. Israeli riot police also injured several people with rubber bullets and batons by Israeli forces. EAs eyewitnessed brutal maltreatment of two arrested young men in the middle of the street. We wondered, if this is what happens when we are here to witness, what is happening to Palestinians when hidden from the public eye?

On 27th of February Amnesty International published a new report Trigger-happy: Israel’s use of excessive force in the West Bank about human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. According to the report there were 27 Palestinians killed in 2013, 8 in 2012, and 10 in 2011. So far in 2014, 5 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces.

We thought of the Palestinians killed. We thought of the renewed violence in Gaza and southern Israel.  We wondered, how many will have to die this year?And when will the international community say enough is enough?