This Ramadan, Israeli restrictions on Palestinians worshippers in Jerusalem are as bad as ever. According to a weekly report of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: “age criteria and permit requirements [banning most Palestinians from Jerusalem] continued to be applied and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip continued to be denied access” to Jerusalem.
Palestinian boys and men between the ages of 12 and 40 are barred from entering Jerusalem to worship in the Muslim holy places, without special permits. These passes, regulated by the occupation system, are difficult or impossible to get.
And women too get turned back. My colleague at The Electronic Intifada Linah Alsaafin reported today on Twitter that she was barred from accessing Jerusalem, because of the occupation’s arbitrary rules.
Despite these restrictions, tens of thousands of Palestinian Muslims attended al-Aqsa mosque for the first Friday prayers of this year’s holy month of Ramadan. The steadfastness of Palestinian Muslims in holding onto their holy places in the historic capital of Palestine is a form of resistance to the illegal Israeli occupation over the city.
Palestinian Christians too face discrimination by Israel. Israeli policies of closure over the West Bank, and its absolute siege on the Gaza Strip mean that Palestinians are mostly denied entry to Jerusalem, apart from a small number of permits Israel dolls out when it so chooses.
Some of these permits are given out during Easter, but only to a minority of Palestinian Christians. This year, reports confirm that in some parishes, only 30-40 per cent of applying Christians had been granted permits.
Meanwhile, Christian pilgrims from Europe and America are allowed to visit Palestinian Christian holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Zionism is sectarianism
Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre dates back to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. It a cruel irony that tourists often have far more access to the church than the indigenous Christians of the land.
Meanwhile, Jews from all around the world have more rights and more access to all of occupied Palestine than any Palestinian. Under Israel’s racist “Law of Return,” any Jew from London or New York can “return” to live in the land, regardless of whether or not he or she has any historical connection there.
The Zionist movement is at its heart a racist and sectarian endeavour, that aims to pit people of different faiths against each other. Zionism’s racist argument has always been that Jews do not really belong to the countries they have always lived in. This is the same argument anti-Semites have always made: that Jews should leave Europe.
Zionism also has a long history of deliberately inciting problems between different religious sects among the indigenous peoples of the Middle East. Recall, for example, the so-called “Lavon Affair” of the 1950s. This euphemistic title disguises what was in reality an Israeli terrorist plot against the people of Egypt.
In 1954, an Israeli terrorist network carried out a series of bombings against embassies, post offices, theatres and libraries in Cairo and Alexandria. The goal had been to abort a pull-out of British troops from Egypt. The plotters hoped to the to pin the blame on the Muslim Brotherhood. But this Israeli terrorist scheme was discovered and the cell was broken up and prosecuted, with some of its members receiving the death penalty.
The plotters were a small group of Egyptian Jews that Israel had recruited. One of their goals was to frighten Egyptian Jews into fleeing their homeland for Israel.
The Israeli press propagated the lie that the trial against the terror cell was part of an anti-Semitic witch hunt by Egyptian Presiden Gamal Abdul Nasser. In 1968, surviving members of the Israeli terror cell were released as part of a prisoner exchange with Egypt and received a heroes’ welcome in Israel.
According to Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, many Iraqi Jews who now live in Israel believe that it was Mossad agents who bombed a synagogue — an infamous incident that helped cause the flight of indigenous Arab Jews from Iraq in 1950 (although so far he has not been able to find hard evidence in the Israeli archives).
Israel’s sectarian conspiracies
Israel has also long sought — and long failed — to break the indigenous Christians off from the Palestinian national movement. Historically, Palestinian Christians have played a leading role in the national movement, from pioneering journalists Isa and Yousef al-Isa at the start of the 20th century, to famous educator Khalil Sakakini in the British mandate period, onto resistance leaders George Habash and Nayaf Hawatmeh in the PLO period, up to popular nationalist priest Atallah Hanna in the present day.
The Zionist movement always understood a united population would be harder to defeat, and so, like imperialists everywhere, sought to divide and conquer.
In Israeli historian Hillel Cohen’s study of Palestinian collaboration with Zionism he notes that a 1920 Zionist Executive budget proposal set as one of the movements goals (in the document’s own words): “Provocation of dissension between [Palestinian] Christians and Muslims” (Army of Shadows, p. 17). Israel’s actions over the years prove it never abandoned this strategy.
In October last year, Israel embarked on a new attempt to recruit Christian Palestinian citizens of Israel into the Israeli army. Palestinians Christians within the 1948 territories do not number more than a few tens of thousands, so this plan is highly unlikely to be an army manpower issue.
Instead, it’s far more likely to be another attempt by Israel to foster resentment and sectarianism against Palestinians Christians. After all, if Muslim and Christian were to be busy fighting each other, they would be less able to resist Israel.
Resistance of Palestinian Christians to this new army recruitment plan has been swift. Israel sees this activism as a threat and has begun rounding-up and harassing those organizing against it. Abir Kopty told The Electronic Intifada recently how Israeli secret police took her in for questioning and attempted to take DNA samples. Their main concern seemed to be her organizing against this sectarian recruitment campaign.
I happened to be in Palestine during Easter last year, and while travelling on a bus to Jerusalem, an Israeli agent of some description boarded the bus. He said in Arabic, loudly and in front of the whole bus, that only those with the “holiday permit” (eid tasrih) would be able to pass the checkpoint into Jerusalem.
The fact this took place during Easter meant that this sent a clear message: only the Christians would be allowed to pass. It was very clearly a deliberate provocation.
Although Arab Christians as a whole have deep historical roots in the Arab and Palestinian national movements, that does not stop the continuation of such Israeli provocations. After all, its attempts to sow sectarian divisions have had some limited success at times – perhaps most bloodily in Lebanon during the civil war.
My feeling is that Israel sees the current of sectarian conflict in the wider Arab world and is trying once again to stoke the flames with such tactics in occupied Palestine.
Asa Winstanley is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, and an investigative journalist who lives in London.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.