Palestinian Denial of Religious Freedom
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Palestinian Denial of Religious Freedom

Palestinian Denial of Religious Freedom

A History of Denial of Rights to Christians and Jews by the PLO and Palestinian Authority.

by Jerusalem Fund of Aish Hatorah

INTRODUCTION – RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE

Since the end of September 2000, the Holy Land has been beset by turmoil and terrorism. The Palestinian-Israeli strife is often described in terms of competing nationalist movements or in terms of disputed territories. Another factor behind the conflict, however, is too often ignored: the religious intolerance and prejudice practiced and preached by the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Islamicists against Christians and Jews.

Along side the Palestinian Authority's military and terrorist attacks against the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli civilians, the PA has escalated its physical attacks against Christian and Jewish sites and its verbal onslaught against Judaism and the Jewish right to their holy sites. Official Palestinian media has unleashed a torrent of blatant anti-Semitism. Palestinian clerics and political leaders repeatedly broadcast – in Arabic – claims that Jews have no historical ties to the Land of Israel or Jewish holy sites.

This study reviews commitments on religious tolerance made by the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo Accords. The study will examine the repeated Palestinian violations of the commitments, citing human rights and official U.S. government reports. The study also reveals that the Palestinian Authority is repeating the patterns of intolerance and religious prejudice it practiced in Lebanon in the 1970s and early 1980s.


CONTENTS

  • Oslo Commitments and the Situation Today
  • History of Palestinian Assaults on Christian and Jewish Holy Sites
  • Palestinian Denial of Jewish Holy Sites
  • What the U.S. Government Says about Palestinian Treatment of Christians

 

OSLO COMMITMENTS AND THE SITUATION TODAY

An underlying basis to the Oslo Peace Process was the desire to establish confidence-building measures for both sides. Such measures were particularly critical on the issue of control of holy sites and access to them. The danger of religious disputes over contested holy sites pushed the two sides to explicitly put in writing the commitments to maintaining the sites and providing free access to them.1

Today, however, access to virtually all the Jewish holy sites in Palestinian territories is denied or restricted. Moreover, Jews attempting to visit these sites are likely to be killed, as was the case of Rabbi Hillel Lieberman who attempted to visit Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. Both Joseph's Tomb and the ancient "Shalom on Israel" Synagogue in Jericho were looted and destroyed by Palestinians in early October 2000.

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On Yom Kippur, October 10, 2000, rioting Palestinians attempted to destroy the Tomb of Joshua Ben Nun, located in Kifl Harith, near the Samarian city of Ariel. They were stopped by IDF troops at the site.

Since the outbreak of the hostilities in September 2000, Rachel's Tomb has come under furious gun and firebomb assault by Palestinian gunmen, including members of the Palestinian Authorities security forces. Jewish worshippers were prevented from approaching the site until the end of November when bulletproof buses started shuttling the worshippers to the door of the fortified tomb.


HISTORY OF ASSAULTS ON CHRISTIAN AND JEWISH HOLY SITES BY THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY

Abraham's Oak Russian "Holy Trinity" Monastery - located in the Palestinian-controlled part of Hebron, the monastery belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. On July 5, 1997, Palestinian policemen arrived at the monastery, physically removed the monks and nuns, and took over the site. Several of the monks and nuns required hospitalization.2

Rachel's Tomb - The Tomb, located on the outskirts of Bethlehem, is the burial site of the Biblical matriarch Rachel and is under Israeli control. During the September 1996 riots, Palestinian mobs assaulted the site and hurled rocks and firebombs at it, causing damage to the outer part of the structure. Palestinian policemen on the scene shot and wounded Israeli soldiers guarding the Tomb. Today, Rachel's Tomb is again a major target for Palestinian attacks.

Joseph's Tomb - During the September 1996 riots, a Palestinian mob led by Palestinian policemen assaulted the Tomb. Palestinian security agents opened fire on Israeli troops at the site, killing 6 Israeli soldiers. After the Israeli forces temporarily withdrew, the Palestinian mob entered the site and set fire to it. They burned the Jewish prayer books, Bibles and religious articles inside the structure and caused extensive damage. In October 2000, Palestinian mobs once again attacked, killed one Israeli soldier, and destroyed the building. Palestinian forces again took part.

Church of St. Nicholas, Beit Jalla – During the October and November 2000 hostilities, Fatah gunmen – members of the "Tansim" fired on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo from areas adjacent to churches in Beit Jalla. "The positions chosen by the Tansim are near to churches in Beit Jalla, most notably the Church of St. Nicholas, hoping that Israel's return fire will hit a church," reported a Christian cleric. "Then it will be front-page news for the 'Christian West,' that Israel is now destroying churches."3

Jericho Monastery - In January 2000, Palestinian police evicted five "White Russian" monks from their 19th-century monastery in the West Bank town of Jericho, handing the property over to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.4

Destroyed Christian Communities and Sites in Lebanon – During the seven-year Lebanese civil war (1975-1982) Christian communities in Lebanon were targets for the reign of terror of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Palestinian Authority's predecessor. Christian villagers were massacred, churches destroyed, and cemeteries desecrated. The town of Damour, 10 miles south of Beirut, was particularly hard hit. Hundreds of Damour residents were reportedly massacred.5

The massacre of 586 Damour Christians by the PLO on January 23, 1976 was described by an eyewitness, Maronite Father Mansour Labaky: "The attack took place from the mountain behind. It was an apocalypse. They were coming, thousands and thousands, shouting 'Allahu Akbar! God is great! Let us attack them for the Arabs, let us offer a holocaust to Mohammed! And they were slaughtering everyone in their path, men, women and children."6

Six years later the following reports from the remains of Damour were typical:

The New York Times, June 21 1982, by David Shipler: "For nearly seven years, until the Israeli army attacked and captured [the Christian town of Damour] last week, the town was inaccessible to its own people; the Palestine Liberation Organization made it a stronghold, using the churches as firing ranges and armories... Where a cross would have hung [inside a church] a triangular PLO symbol is painted in the Palestinian nationalist colors... High in the belfry, a concreted cross has obviously been used as a target over the years, for it is chipped and gouged in a thousand places."

The Washington Post, July 7, 1982, by William Braning: "The wall of the church where the cross once hung is pock-marked by bullets. Below where the altar once stood, lies a pile of greasy engine casings and spare parts. Oil stains spot the floor of the church, which evidently had been turned into a garage. In another part of town, the large St. Elias Church is in similar disarray."


PALESTINIAN DENIAL OF JEWISH HOLY SITES

A recurring theme in the Palestinian press and television is the denial of Jewish rights to holy sites in the Holy Land. Unseen and unheard in the Western media – by choice or by ignorance – are the statements of senior Palestinian clerics and political leaders that deny any Jewish tie to the Patriarchs/Matriarchs, to their burial sites, or to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. Denial of the ancient historical Jewish ties to the Land of Israel is an important weapon in the battle to delegitimize the Jewish State of Israel.

Palestinian mobs, led by Palestinian police, destroy Joseph's Tomb in Nablus.  (AFP)

Destroying Joseph's Tomb

"As Palestinian troops stood by, some shooting in the air to express their own the joy, hundreds of Palestinian men set upon the shrine with pick axes and crowbars while black smoke billowed from the charred structure. Raising a Palestinian flag, the Palestinians said that they were destroying Joseph's Tomb to ensure that the Israelis never returned."

-- The New York Times, October 7, 2000, Barak Issues 48-Hour Ultimatum to Arafat By Deborah Sontag

"If the Jews really want peace, they must absolutely forget about having any rights over the Temple Mount or Al-Aksa Mosque... the Western Wall also belongs to Moslems, and was given to the Jews as a place of prayer only because the British asked and the Moslems agreed out of the goodness of their hearts. The Western Wall is just a fence belonging to a Moslem holy site... Why should we allow the Jews to share places which are holy to us and to Islam? ... for 600 years, the Moslems ruled the land, since the Caliph Omar, and only now have the Jews remembered to demand a right to the Temple Mount... For us, the Moslems, the place is holy and was always such. I heard that your Temple was in Nablus or perhaps Bethlehem." -- Sheikh Ikrama Sabri, the official PA Mufti (senior Muslim cleric).7

"That is not the Western Wall at all, but a Moslem shrine." – Yasser Arafat.8

"The archeology of Jerusalem is diverse – excavations in the Old City and the areas surrounding it revealed Umayyad Islamic palaces, Roman ruins, Armenian ruins and others, but nothing Jewish. Outside of what is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, there is no tangible evidence of any Jewish traces in the old city of Jerusalem and its immediate vicinity." -- PA Information Ministry Press Release.9

"Be alert and treat Joseph's Tomb and Rachel's Tomb as parcels of Palestinian land which must be liberated, and treat Joseph and Rachel as two people who died, like anyone else." -- excerpt from the official PA newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda.10

"The 'Al-Buraq' Wall [the Western Wall] is a part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Jews have no relation to it, whether or not a decision to expropriate it was made." -- PA Mufti Ikrama Sabri.11

"Muslim Palestine is one and cannot be divided. There is no difference between Haifa and Nablus, Lod and Ramallah, Jerusalem and Nazareth or Gaza and Ashkelon. Palestine is Wakf land (Muslim religious trust) that belongs to Muslims throughout the world and no one has the right to give it up or to forsake. Whoever does this is a traitor to the trust and is nothing but a criminal whose end shall be in hell." -- Sheik Yusef Abu Sneina, Al Aksa mosque.12

"Abraham was neither Jewish nor a Hebrew, but was simply an Iraqi. The Jews have no right to claim part of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Abraham's resting place, as a synagogue. Rather, the whole building should be a mosque." -- Yasser Arafat.13

"The people of Israel realize perfectly well that they have no temples or ruins near Al Aksa Mosque. According to the Koran, the people of Israel lived somewhere to the west of Bethlehem...they were living in Bethlehem and not in Jerusalem." -- Sheikh Ismail Jamal, the PLO's Director of the Islamic Wakf in Jericho.14

"No stone of the Al-Buraq [Western] Wall has any relation to Judaism. The Jews began praying at this wall only in the 19th century, when they began to develop [national] aspirations." -- PA Mufti Sheikh 'Ikrima Sabri.15

"We the Palestinian nation, our fate from Allah is to be the edge of the sword in the war against the Jews until the resurrection of the dead, as the prophet Muhammad said: 'the resurrection of the dead will not arrive until you will fight the Jews and kill them.' We the Palestinians are the edge of the sword in this issue and in this campaign, whether or not we want this. All of the agreements being agreed are temporary." -- Dr. Ahmed Yusuf Abu Halabiya.16

"Jerusalem, Palestine and Al Aksa, the land and its surroundings that Allah had blessed, will remain the focus of the struggle between truth and falsehood, between the Jews and non-Jews over this holy land. It does not matter how many agreements will be signed or how many contracts will be confirmed. The truth is in the Koran, which is verified in the words of the prophet Mohammed, that the deciding battle will be in Jerusalem and its surroundings: 'Resurrection of the dead will not arrive until you fight the Jews.'" -- Dr. Ahmed Yusuf Abu Halabiya.17

"... In Camp David (July 2000) ... the Israelis and Americans were releasing test- balloons regarding solutions to the Jerusalem issues ... they focused on the Armenian quarter, assuming that [the annexation to Israel of] the Jewish quarter was a given. We categorically rejected all of these proposals, but we agreed that they could pray next to the [Wailing] Wall, without acknowledging any Israeli sovereignty over it. We relied on the resolution of Britain's 1929 Shaw Commission. The Commission acknowledged that the Wall belongs to the Muslim Waqf, while the Jews are allowed to pray by it as long as they do not use a Shofar." -- Abu Mazen, Secretary-General of the PLO Executive Committee.18


PALESTINIAN TREATMENT OF CHRISTIANS

Religious persecution and discrimination of non-Moslems is common in many Arab countries. The Palestine Liberation Organization perpetrated horrific acts of murder, rape and plunder against Christians in Lebanon between 1975 and 1982.19 After several years of rule in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Authority shows signs of returning to this discriminatory pattern.

According to the U.S. State Department's Annual Report on Religious Freedom:

"Periodically, there are incidents of Christian-Muslim tension in the occupied territories. Tensions have arisen over Christian-Muslim romantic relationships or when Christians have erected large crosses in the public domain. Christians in the Bethlehem area also have complained about Muslims settling there and constructing homes illegally on land not zoned for building.

"During the period covered by this report, there were periodic reports that some Christian converts from Islam who publicize their religious beliefs have been harassed. Converts complained that they were mistreated and threatened. The draft Palestinian Basic Law specifically forbids discrimination against individuals based on their religion; however, the PA did not take any action against persons accused of harassment."20


CONGRESSIONAL WITNESS

Other official sources, less encumbered by the State Department's "diplomatic restrictions," have reported on the imprisonment, harassment and even torture of Christian converts. Following a visit in the Middle East in early 1999, Senator Connie Mack (R-Florida) decried the condition of Christians under the Palestinian Authority's jurisdiction. The following is an excerpt of remarks made on the Senate Floor:

"[I met] an energetic man, in his early 40s, at the end of the table... He had many children and very little money. He converted to Christianity in 1993. He clearly loved God, and he loved to tell people about his conversion. He described to me how in 1997, the Palestinian Authority asked him to come to the police station for questioning. When he arrived, he was immediately arrested and detained on charges of selling land to Jews. He denied this charge, since he was very poor and owned no land. He was beaten. He was hung from the ceiling by his hands for many hours.

"After two weeks, he was transferred to a larger prison where he was held for eight months without trial. He was released in February 1998, after his family borrowed thousands of dollars to pay off the local authorities. And even though he is free, they are keeping his father in prison. They believe it is for his son's beliefs. He feels his father is being held hostage to prevent him from talking with people about his faith. Needless to say, these Christians met with me at considerable risk. They conveyed to me a message of fear and desperation. But their mere presence in the room with me demonstrated their hope, and it also caused me to ask, how can the people of Israel find peace with the Palestinian Authority while the Palestinian Authority engages in coercion and torture based upon religious beliefs?"21


NOTES

  1. PALESTINIAN COMMITMENTS

    Agreement on the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area, signed May 4, 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement Annex II -- Religious Affairs:

    1. The Palestinian Authority shall ensure free access to all holy sites in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area determined by the respective religious sects and shall protect these sites.

    2. A list of the existing Jewish holy sites is attached as Appendix A attached to this Annex. [Appendix A: The Naaran Synagogue (Ein Diuk) .The Jewish Cemetery in Tel Sammarat. "Shalom Al Israel" Synagogue in Jericho. The Jewish Synagogue in Gaza City.]

    3. Religious affairs in the "Shalom Al Israel" synagogue in Jericho shall be under the auspices of the Israeli authorities.

    INTERIM AGREEMENT BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS
    September 28, 1995

    Annex III -- Protocol Concerning Civil Affairs
    ARTICLE 32 -- Religious Sites

    1. Responsibility over sites of religious significance in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (hereinafter - "Holy Sites") will be transferred to the Palestinian side. In Area C, this responsibility will be transferred gradually to Palestinian jurisdiction that will cover West Bank and Gaza Strip territory except for the issues that will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations, during the further redeployment phases, to be completed within 18 months from the date of the inauguration of the Council.

    2. Both sides shall respect and protect the listed below religious rights of Jews, Christians, Moslems and Samaritans:
      a. Protection of the Holy Sites;
      b. Free access to the Holy Sites; and
      c. Freedom of worship and practice.

    3. a. The Palestinian side shall ensure free access to, respect the ways of worship in and not make any changes to, the Jewish Holy Sites listed in List No. 1 of Schedule 4.

      b. The Palestinian side shall ensure free access to, and respect the ways of worship in, the Jewish Holy Sites listed in List No. 2 of Schedule 4.

    SCHEDULE 4  Pursuant to Article 32, paragraph 3 of this Appendix:

    List No. 1
    Elazar's Tomb, Ittamar's Tomb and the Tomb of the 70 Elders in Awarta, Joshua's Tomb in Kifel-Hares, The Cave of Othniel ben Knaz in Hebron, The Eshtamoa Synagogue in Samoa, The Yata Synagogue, Batir, Sebastia/Samaria

    List No. 2
    Nun's Tomb and Caleb's Tomb in Kifel-Hares, The Tombs of Natan the Prophet and Gad the Seer in Halhul, The Naran Synagogue - Ein Duk, The Jewish Cemetery in Sammerat, The Synagogue in Gaza City (return to text)

  2. "Russian Nuns Say They Were Beaten," Associated Press, July 9, 1997. (return to text)

  3. Clarence Wagner, Director of Bridges for Peace, www.virtualholyland.com (return to text)

  4. "U.S. nuns land in middle of Russian church dispute" January 19, 2000 Jericho, West Bank (CNN) - Two American nuns, including the sister of President Bill Clinton's former aide George Stephanopolous, are caught in the eye of a Russian church storm in the Holy Land. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian police have evicted five so-called White Russian monks from their 19th-century monastery at 13 Moscow Street in the West Bank town of Jericho, handing the property over to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.... The property wrangle in the Holy Land is part of a 70-year battle for control of the Russian Orthodox Church involving the Red and White entities. Two weeks ago, Moscow Patriarch Alexei II came on a Christmas pilgrimage to Bethlehem and presented Arafat with documents laying claim to the monastery property. Alexei II is the leader of the Red Church. To the dismay of White Church officials, the Palestinians accepted the claim. This is the second such handover by the Palestinian Authority, and White Church officials fear its other properties could follow.

    The issue of ownership would have been decided but for the two nuns who, during the turmoil of the takeover, managed to slip into the property. In the meantime, Palestinian officials say the nuns won't be evicted by force but argue that since the Soviet Union has collapsed, the two Russian churches should no longer be enemies. "It's not our business to tell them to be one with the Jews, and it's not their business to tell us with whom we have to be one," retorted Archbishop Mark of the church in exile. From a distance, Sister Maria Stephanopolous told visitors at the gate she was afraid to stray far from the main building for fear she would not be allowed back. However, when more senior Palestinian officers arrived, they told her she could approach. She did so warily. "We didn't want to get embroiled in this, but if this is the only way we can get the attention of Arafat and of the Russians to stop this kind of interference, this is the way it has to go," Stephanopolous said. Sisters from their convent in Jerusalem are allowed to bring supplies to the two nuns.

    ... Stephanopolous says she's determined to stand firm. "My brother is well aware of the situation, and we trust that he will do what he knows he can do," she said. (return to text)

  5. Eliyahu Tal, "Now the Story Can Be Told," WZO press, 1982, page 46. (return to text)

  6. Becker, J, "The PLO: The Rise and Fall of the Palestine Liberation Organization" (London,1984). (return to text)

  7. Makor Rishon, May 22, 1998. (return to text)

  8. Ma'ariv, October 11, 1996. (return to text)

  9. PA Information Ministry Press Release, December 10, 1997. (return to text)

  10. Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, December 1, 1997. (return to text)

  11. Al-Ayyam, November 22, 1997. (return to text)

  12. Palestinian Television, September 8, 2000. (return to text)

  13. The Jerusalem Report, Dec. 26, 1996. (return to text)

  14. Chicago Jewish Sentinel, May 18, 1995. (return to text)

  15. Kul Al-Arab, August 18, 2000. (return to text)

  16. Palestinian Television July 28, 2000. (return to text)

  17. Palestinian Television August 11, 2000. (return to text)

  18. Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), November 23, 2000. (return to text)

  19. Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari, "Israel's Lebanon War," page 80. (New York, Simon & Shuster, 1984). (return to text)

  20. Excerpts from State Department's Religious Freedom Report, 2000 http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/irf/irf_rpt/irf_occterr.html . (return to text)

  21. Sen. Connie Mack, Speech U.S. Senate, March 3, 2000 http://www.senate.gov/~mack/issues/StatementFP.htm (return to text)

Published: May 6, 2001


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