Tourists & Palestinian Christians alike restricted, yet hope remains

Our EAs this year provided protective presence and monitored the human rights situation throughout the Easter celebrations. This is the 3rd account from our EAs sharing from Easter 2014 in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Holy Saturday was full of joyful celebrations as Local Christians waited for the arrival of the Holy Fire to be passed on throughout the world. Photo EAPPI/J. Valkama.

Holy Saturday was full of joyful celebrations as Local Christians waited for the arrival of the Holy Fire to be passed on throughout the world. Photo EAPPI/J. Valkama.

by Juhani, Jerusalem Ar Ram team

At the plaza of the Holy Sepulchre Church there’s a group of Christian pilgrims standing – a very squashed crowd in the middle of the steel fences. It’s the Holy Saturday just before Easter and they are waiting for the Holy Fire ceremony to start. The fire is lit in a place where they believe Jesus was crucified and buried. So for the Christians it’s a very special and holy place. From there the fire is passed throughout the Christian world, from candle to candle.


There are dozens of Israeli police and guards moving around the plaza, looking nervous and suspicious. The pilgrim group, on the other hand, is not able to move. The sun is parching and their waiting just goes on.

 “It’s the biggest wish in my life to be here”, says Janus, a pilgrim from Romania. “It’s not pleasant to be waiting like this, but in my heart I always knew that one day I must come here.”

At last, half an hour before the ceremony starts, they open the fences and let the people into the church. They are a lucky, but a very small band. When they’re in, the plaza of the Holy Sepulchre remains almost completely empty. Even though it is one of the most important Christian celebrations, one would think that there aren’t very many people interested.

The truth is different. All roads leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are cut off. Everywhere around the Old City of Jerusalem there are great number of local Christians and pilgrims behind the barriers trying to participate in Easter celebrations, but they are hampered by the Israeli police. The ceremony starts at 2pm, but the streets are closed already at 9am. No explanations are given by the Israeli troops. There’s a small tourist group near the Jaffa gate reading their maps and even they are evicted by the police.

The restrictions of Easter go even further. Already in the Palm Sunday procession it is clear that not all who would like to be there are present. There is just handful of Palestinian Christians from the occupied West Bank in Jerusalem because the permits have been very difficult to get. There is a simultaneous Jewish celebration too, Passover, that has tightened the restrictions for the Christians and Muslims even more, especially in Jerusalem. Also the Separation Barrier divides Palestinian Christians from accessing Jerusalem and Bethlehem freely. It’s a very concrete reminder of the severe restrictions of Palestinians mobility and lack of their human rights.

The separation barrier is illegal according to the International Court of Justice and in 2012 US State Department published a report about Israeli policies restricting freedom of worship for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. The report says:

“Strict closures and curfews imposed by the Israeli government negatively affected residents’ ability to practice their religion at holy sites” and that “the separation barrier significantly impeded Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and made visits to Christian sites in Bethany (al-Eizariya) and Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who live on the Jerusalem side of the barrier.”

So the long-term conflict between the occupying state and the occupied is visible also on Easter at least through the fences, barriers and permits declined. The ongoing peace negotiations are not believed to make any significant results, but the hope lives on.

“I’m going to pray”, replies Janus when asked what he is going to do when he gets into the church. “I’m going to pray for peace. What could be more important?”

Twice a refugee – The story of Mr. Sabbagh

In recent years, Sheikh Jarrah has become the location of active demonstrations against Israeli policies in the neighborhood. After many families were forcibly evicted from their homes in order for Israeli settlers to take up residence, weekly Friday protests began.  Here is the story of one family forced from their home.

by Jerusalem Team 50

Mohammad SabbaghDuring the 1948 war, Mr. Sabbagh’s family became refugees from their village of Yavneh. They were forced to leave their homes and take only the items they could carry. They left behind not only their houses, but their entire properties that they worked they accumulated over the years. Mr. Sabbagh’s family lost 250 dunums of land.

They fled to Jerusalem and were brought as refugees to Sheikh Jarrah, an area now in East Jerusalem.  At that time, Sheikh Jarrah came under the rule of the Jordanian government.  Many refugees, including Mr. Sabbagh’s family were given houses in Sheikh Jarrah on the condition that they pay rent to the Jordanian government.

In 1967, when the state of Israel took over East Jerusalem and the West Bank and began its military occupation, Sheikh Jarrah once again fell under their rule. At this time, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the Jordanian Government transferred ownership of the houses in Sheikh Jarrah to the Palestinian families living in them.

For Mr. Sabbagh’s family, the dispute over their home began in 1972 when Israeli settlers claimed that their ancestors lived on the land on which Mr. Sabbagh’s house was built and the land and house belonged to them. Although these claims began in 1972, Mr. Sabbagh’s case came to the forefront in 2010 when the family received eviction orders from the Israeli authorities based on the claims of Israeli settlers.

Since then, the family’s lawyer is still contesting their eviction and seeking recognition of Mr. Sabbagh’s family’s ownership of the property.  Despite proof of Mr. Sabbagh’s ownership in documents obtained from records in Turkey that combat the settlers’ claims, the Sabbagh family was evicted from their home, forced to stay in tents they erected nearby.

The startling fact of families being forced from their homes, opened the eyes of many in Israel and throughout the world.  Public demonstrations began to oppose the forced evictions of Mr. Sabbagh’s family and others.  Every Friday, Israelis, internationals, and Palestinians gather at 3:00 pm in the afternoon voicing their support for the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.

Many thoughts come to our minds as we ponder Mr. Sabbagh’s story. How can Palestinians persevere, despite the double loss of homes, property, and the dreams and memories these places carry? How much money has been wasted in support of countless human rights violations? How long can the Israeli government support the active violation of Palestinians human rights without facing repercussions?

These questions bare heavily on our minds, but we find hope in the solidarity Israelis and internationals show every Friday with the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.  Much more needs to be done, but one day freedom will be delivered to those that are oppressed.

Read about Sheikh Jarrah on +972 Magazine.

Watch videos about Sheikh Jarrah from Just Vision.