Israel restricts freedom of worship in Jerusalem

Israeli soldiers stand on a roof top near the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque (Ronen Zvulun - Reuters)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  April 29, 2022

Palestinians confronted Israeli riot police early Friday morning as occupation forces entered Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

The last Friday afternoon prayers of Ramadan later in the day ended without major incident, with some 160,000 worshippers in attendance.

The Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported that “hundreds of young Palestinians fired fireworks and threw rocks within the compound.”

Police raided the compound for the first time since last Friday and fired tear gas and foam-tipped bullets, injuring more than 40 people.

Israeli occupation forces dropped tear gas grenades from a drone as they did over al-Aqsa last Friday.

A 21-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, Walid Sharif, remains unconscious after he was hit in the head with a foam-tipped bullet during confrontations at al-Aqsa last week.

Around 200,000 people marked Laylat al-Qadr – one of the holiest nights of Ramadan – at Al-Aqsa late Wednesday and early Thursday. Laylat al-Qadr, or Night of Destiny, marks the night Muslims believe the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Israeli media reported that police required worshippers to deposit their ID cards in order to enter the al-Aqsa mosque compound after last Friday’s confrontations.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel told Haaretz that the practice violates the right to freedom of worship and that police have no legal authority to demand the deposit of worshippers’ IDs.

“In some cases, return of their ID was contingent upon being questioned by police,” according to Haaretz, citing a letter from Adalah, a human rights group serving Palestinians in Israel, to Israeli authorities.

Violation of “status quo”

Israel imposed “additional punitive restrictions” on Christians seeking to worship at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher during the Orthodox Easter holiday, the Palestinian Authority foreign ministry stated last week.

Israeli police restricted attendance to the Holy Fire ceremony held at the church on Saturday, saying that it sought to prevent a repeat of a stampede during a Jewish religious festival in the Upper Galilee that killed 45 people in 2021.

Some 11,000 people typically attend the ceremony, but that number has been much lower during the pandemic due to public health restrictions.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem rejected the Israeli move, saying “it will not compromise its right to provide spiritual services in all churches and squares.”

The PA foreign ministry accused Israel of “violating the status quo, upending centuries of Christian heritage and Palestinian traditions.”

It added that “the occupying power is willfully provoking Christian and Muslim worshippers and threatening a religious war.”

Video circulated last Saturday showing an Israeli police officer directing Arabic-speaking Christian worshippers to separate from the rest of a crowd queued in the Old City of Jerusalem amid Easter celebrations.

“Whoever is Arab, Christian, speaks Arabic, stand to the side,” the officer states in Arabic in the short clip.

The Israeli police stated that the officer was attempting to facilitate the entry of Old City residents, though the video shows his instructions pertained to ethnicity rather than residency location.

Israel prevents Palestinian Christians from the rest of the West Bank and Gaza from freely worshipping in Jerusalem and only a small fraction receive Israeli permits to worship in the city during Easter and Christmas.

Palestinian Muslims seeking to exercise their faith in Jerusalem face similar restrictions during holidays and throughout the year as Israel controls Palestinian movement to and from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Racial segregation” in Jerusalem

Meanwhile, UN human rights experts said this week that “Israel’s housing policies in East Jerusalem amount to racial segregation and discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

Israel’s zoning and planning regimes “restrict access to housing, safe drinking water and sanitation, and other essential services, including healthcare and educational facilities,” the experts added.

International observers are increasingly echoing what Palestinians have been saying for years – that Israel’s policies and practices amount to apartheid, which has been recognized as a crime against humanity for the past half-century.

Amnesty International has called on the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor to “consider the applicability of the crime against humanity of apartheid within its current formal investigation” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Earlier this month, the international tribunal received a complaint alleging war crimes against journalists by Israeli occupation forces.

The complaint concerns the “systematic targeting” of four Palestinian media workers who were “killed or maimed by Israeli snipers while covering demonstrations in Gaza,” according to the International Federation of Journalists.

“All were wearing clearly marked PRESS vests at the time they were shot.”

The complaint also includes the bombing of two towers housing media offices during Israel’s attack on Gaza last May.

More than 45 journalists have been killed by Israel since 2000 “and no one has been held to account,” the federation said.

Meanwhile, Israeli occupation forces killed two Palestinians in the West Bank over the past week.

Ahmad Misad, 21, was killed during a raid on Jenin on Wednesday. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights said that Misad was shot with a live bullet to the head while Israeli forces, who were confronted by Palestinians throwing stones and empty bottles, were withdrawing from the area.

The previous day, Ahmad Oweidat, 20, was shot in the head during a raid in Aqabat Jabr refugee camp in Jericho.

More than 40 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank so far this year.

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada