With a perfectly straight face, and their usual air of polite and respectful seriousness, the pioneering Israeli human rights organization GISHA is now challenging the religious discrimination that is apparent in the non-issuance of Israeli permits — to Palestinian Muslims locked inside Gaza — to pray at the third-holiest site in Islam, Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of East Jerusalem.
GISHA has filed a case — on International Women’s Day — on behalf of seven Palestinian women in Gaza who have been unable to get Israeli permits to pray at Al-Aqsa.
Gisha concentrates on Gaza, particularly the denial of movement to the 1.5 million Palestinians (over half of whom are children, and perhaps 75% are refugees from what is now Israel, effectively trapped in the Gaza Strip.
Gisha has also led a valiant struggle — and lost — in Israel’s Supreme Court against progressively-tightened Israeli military-administered sanctions imposed in October 2007, several months after the Hamas rout of Palestinian/Fatah Preventive Security Forces in Gaza in June 2007.
Two years earlier, in September 2005, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered Israeli forces and some 8,000 Israeli settlers they were protecting to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. From that time, Israeli officials have been arguing (though less, in recent months), that Gaza was no longer occupied — a position that almost all international law experts contradicted. In any case, strict Israeli movement controls were enforced both to keep Palestinians out of Israel and to keep Israeli citizens out of Gaza (enforcing a regulation from the date of the evacuation, banning Israelis from being in Gaza). In June 2006, a “cross-border” raid on an IDF position at the Kerem Shalom crossing and control post by Palestinian fighters from Gaza resulted in the capture of IDF Corporal Gilad Shalit, and Israeli punitive retaliation on Gazans, including restrictions on movement, rose to an even higher degree.
Israel is formally committed to freedom of access to all holy sites under its rule or jurisdiction. But, when it comes to Palestinian access, security concerns are evoked.
One of the petitioners in the new case, Kareema Ahrawat, a 43-year old mother of four, said (in a statement sent by GISHA): ” ‘I don’t know why they allow Christians to leave and not us’. The worshippers expressed frustration at the discriminatory policy, noting that ‘It’s easier for us to go all the way to Saudi Arabia to perform the Haj than to access Al Aqsa, which is so much closer to us’.”
The GISHA statement added that “The state’s policy became apparent from its answer to a petition submitted by Gisha on behalf of seven Muslim women from the Gaza Strip, whose request to cross to east Jerusalem in order to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque was rejected out of hand, even though no security claims were raised against them. A hearing on the petition will be held Thursday at the Beersheba District Court. The petitioners, mothers, grandmothers and career women over the age of 40, claim that the refusal to allow them to leave Gaza to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque violates their right to freedom of worship. What is more, the refusal to allow their exit is part of a policy that discriminates between Muslims and Christians, all residents of the Gaza Strip. Under the current policy, prayer at Al-Aqsa is permitted for Palestinian Muslims from the West Bank, subject to age restrictions and an individual security check. Furthermore, Christian residents of the Gaza Strip receive permits to travel to pray in Bethlehem and Jerusalem on religious holidays, also subject to age restrictions. Muslims, however, are categorically denied permits to leave Gaza for purposes of prayer at Al Aqsa. The women worshippers requested to travel to Al-Aqsa for the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday on February 15, 2011. Since the Israeli army rejected their application, they hope to be able to pray there on the next Moslem holiday in June. Although the women first submitted their request on December 21, 1.5 months before the holiday, the Defense Ministry yesterday in its response asked the court to dismiss the petition as theoretical – because Mohammed’s birthday has already passed”.
In fact, Gaza’s small Christian minority also has problems — fewer, but also frustrating. For example, though they are not followers of the Latin rites or the Vatican in Rome, a group of Greek Orthodox Gazans were given permits to leave Gaza to visit Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, and to follow the itinerary of the Pope’s visit in sites in Israel as well, in May 2009. The opposite had happened the previous Christmas: Latin rite Catholics were given permits on the Greek Orthodox Christmas holidays a week later. This past year, though some 500 permits were supposed to be issued to Gaza Christians at Christmas, in some cases children would be issued (or denied) permits while the parents were given permits, or vice versa.
It is impossible to believe that this is only sloppy bureaucratic carelessness.
In addition, it is of course not only Gazans who are affected, despite the draconian permit system that restricts their lives.
The majority of Palestinian Muslims in the West Bank are also denied passage through Israel’s checkpoints to pray at Al-Aqsa as well. In addition, even Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, or Israel’s own Palestinian Arab citizens, are also denied entrance to the Old City if they are male, and under an age limit that is often set at 50, sometimes at 45. That means, for a young Palestinian male — many of whom are fervently religious without being affiliated at all with Hamas [and in fact some of them are Fatah and arch-enemies of Hamas] — that it could take more than 30 years before they can imagine being able to go to pray at this iconic holy site.
The Old City and the entire West Bank, and Gaza as well, were not part of Israel when the state was proclaimed in May 1948, but were all captured by Israel 19 years later, in the June 1967 war. A few weeks later, Israel extended its administrative control over what it said was all of “Jerusalem” — meaning not only West Jerusalem but also the Old City of East Jerusalem and an additional large swathe of neighboring areas in the West Bank running in an arc to the east of the Old City — and re-named this entire area “Greater Municipal Jerusalem”. In 1980, the Israeli Knesset passed a Basic Law proclaiming “Jerusalem” (presumably the Greater Municipal Jerusalem it proclaimed in 1967) the eternal and undivided capital of Israel.
Since then, slowly but picking up pace in recent years, an Israeli religious nationalist movement — supported by the Israeli Government — has intensified claims to not only religious but also historical sites of significance to Jews.
What Israelis call the Temple Mount — the site where the Second and possibly also the First Jewish Temple was or were located before their destruction 2000 and more years ago — is known to Palestinians as the Haram ash-Sharif (the Sacred Precinct), where both Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of The Rock have been situated for the last 1400 years.