Israeli attacks on Easter worshipers reflect efforts to expand control over Jerusalem

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  April 18, 2023

Recent attacks on Christian and Muslim worshipers in Jerusalem reflect Israeli efforts to consolidate control over the holy city. “The occupation, through such policies, claims that Jerusalem is theirs,” Archbishop Atallah Hanna tells Mondoweiss.

On April 15, Palestinian worshipers and international pilgrims were brutally beaten by Israeli police and armed forces as they attempted to reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Easter holiday in the Old City of Jerusalem. 

For years, Israeli right-wing settlers, supported by Israeli policy-makers and protected by Israeli armed forces, have escalated attacks on non-Jewish and non-Israeli worshipers in Jerusalem. 

The violent attacks came amid broader Israeli attempts to claim the holy city and enforce a new Judiazed-Israeli identity. One way this effort has been facilitated and implemented is through discriminatory practices discouraging Muslim and Christian worshipers and pilgrims from reaching sacred places of worship in the Old City.

What happened during the Easter holiday in Jerusalem? 

On Saturday afternoon, as Palestinian and international worshipers gathered for the Holy Fire ritual as part of the annual Easter Holiday celebrations, Israeli armed forces were deployed across the Old City’s Christian quarter.

“On the Holy Saturday, Jerusalem city was turned to a military base, with checkpoints spread across the city, police and army deployed everywhere,” Archbishop Atallah Hanna, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told Mondoweiss. “It was as though we were on a battlefield,” he recalled of the holy day, one of the most sacred holidays on the Christian calendar. 

Days before the scheduled celebration of the Holy Fire ritual, Israeli forces were ordered only to allow 1,800 Christian worshipers inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and an additional 1,200 to be allowed outside the church. In past years more than 10,000 people have attended. In addition, at least 200 Israeli officers would be stationed inside the church.

“These practices cannot be justified in any shape or form,” the Archbishop said to Mondoweiss. 

While Israeli forces claim security concerns when defending the deployment of armed forces in a place of worship, the attacks against Palestinian Christians go beyond sacred spaces. 

Last year, after Israeli soldiers shot and killed the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin, Israeli police attacked mourners as her funeral procession moved from the St. Joseph hospital in Jerusalem. The Catholic Church condemned the violence against mourners and the direct attack on Abu Akleh’s coffin. A year later, no Israeli forces have been held accountable for breaching the right to burial, the attack on mourners, or killing the journalist herself, despite being visibly identified as a media member.

A history of assaults on Palestinian Christians

In recent years, Palestinian Christians and Church representatives have warned against escalating and intensifying Israeli assaults on Palestinian Christians and Christian holy spaces in the Old City. Church leaders say Israeli settlers’ attacks on their holy spaces are only worsening.

In January, Israeli youth vandalized the Protestant Mount Zion Christian cemetery and damaged nearly thirty grave headstones, including the headstones of historic figures such as the founder of the Jerusalem University College, Reverend Samuel Gobat. Many of the gravestones targeted were ones with crosses etched on them, signaling a religiously motivated crime, according to a statement by the Episcopal Church

Shortly after the desecration of one of Jerusalem’s most iconic sites on New Year’s dayanother attack targeted the statue of Jesus at the Church of Condemnation. 

In the first five weeks of this year, Jewish supremacists carried out at least five incidents of vandalism and violence against Christians in Jerusalem. One priest reported being spat on at least 90 times this year alone. 

According to the Churches, this is also due to inaction by the Israeli authorities and police, the sole political and security body with the capacity and jurisdiction to enforce accountability.

The Vatican-appointed Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, has emphasized that since the rise of a blatant right-wing Israeli government, Christian worshipers’ conditions in Jerusalem have only worsened. Pizzaballa also noted that the increase in violence that his Christian community has seen is only part of a broader wave of violence against Palestinians.

However, Israel’s history of attacking non-Jewish places of worship is neither an anomaly nor a practice solely of “right-wing extremists.” 

Israel’s first Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharette decried attacks by Zionist militia against Palestinian churches and Christians, not because they were criminal, but because they tarnished Israel’s image in the international arena.

“We will pay compensation and we will not publish this by any means …” Sharette told the Knesset in June 1949, referring to the crimes of the 1948 violent take-over of Palestinian lands to become what is now the State of Israel. 

“For this we will demand cessation of propaganda and incitement, and with this we will put an end to the matter and there is no need to sift through the details and publish another article about what the Jews did,” he had said according to documents that were declassified only in 2016.

Israeli claims over Jerusalem

The assault on the Old City in Jerusalem falls within a larger trend of enforcing a Jewish-Israeli reality in Palestine. In fact, the recent attacks against Christian worshipers in the Old City of Jerusalem complement similar attacks against Muslim holy spaces in Jerusalem. Both are less about being Christian or Muslim and more about being non-Jewish and non-Israeli.

“What Muslims face, Christians face,” Atallah Hanna explained to Mondoweiss. “What the Aqsa mosque faces, so does the Church of Holy Scripture,” he said.

According to the Archbishop, the Israeli practices against worshipers on Saturday were part of a larger attempt at limiting the Palestinian presence and liberties in the Old City, and outside of it. “The targeting is for all of us as the people of Palestine, Muslim or Christian,” he emphasized.

“Israel claims that it does this under the pretext of security concerns,” the Archbishop told Mondoweiss. However, the Patriarch said that despite such excuses from Israeli authorities, “these claims cannot justify what Israel, its police and army, have done in violating the right of worshipers and those celebrating the Easter holiday.”

“The dignity, freedom, and right to worship and reach places of worship of Palestinians should be protected,” the Archbishop demanded.

Less than two weeks before the attack on Christian worshipers in the Old City, Israeli forces had invaded Al-Aqsa compound during the holy month of Ramadan, beating worshipers as they completed their final bow, firing stun grenades, and arresting hundreds. Some worshipers were detained in one of Israel’s most notorious holding cells, Cell number 4, in Jerusalem’s Israeli police station, also known as the German Compound.

Palestinian Muslim worshipers from the West Bank were detained for days, and at least 47 were taken to court and banned from returning to Al-Aqsa and fined a monetary fee as a punitive measure, despite having been the ones beaten during prayer. 

For Palestinians, the escalation in attacks on the Christian and Muslim communities, including in their most holy places, reflects Israeli impunity and shows that even worshipers are not spared the violence of Israeli Jewish supremacy.

“Palestinians in Jerusalem are a single people,” Atallah Hanna tells Mondoweiss. “We don’t speak of Jerusalem without emphasizing that it is a holy city in the three Abrahamic religions, and we refuse that anyone claims Jerusalem as theirs and no one else,” he said.

“The [Israeli] occupation, through such policies, claims that Jerusalem is theirs,” Hanna said, placing the recent attacks in their larger sociopolitical context. “They try to show the world that Jerusalem is theirs.”

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss