11 April 2009

Easter in the Holy Land

By Nicola Pratt

This weekend, the Christian church celebrates one of its most important religious feasts—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In celebration, thousands of Christians are making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is well know that Jerusalem is not only holy to Christianity but to Judaism and Islam too. For Jews, the city is their spiritual centre and the original site of the two temples as well as the Western Wall. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam, being the place of the Haram al-Sharif, consisting of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from where the Prophet Muhammad made his heavenly ascent. The city has been home to communities of Christians, Jews and Muslims for thousands of years.

Following the 1967 war, Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem—the location of key religious sites for the three faiths. The international community considers this annexation to be illegal and, according to international law, Israel should not move its civilian population to the annexed area, nor make any permanent changes there. Nevertheless, Israel has used its control over Jerusalem to gradually 'Judaize' the city. Under Israeli military rule, Palestinians have had to prove that Jerusalem constitutes the 'centre of their lives' in order to acquire a permit to live there, resulting in many Palestinians who are originally from Jerusalem being denied Jerusalem IDs because they were temporarily away from the city for reasons of marriage, work or study.

At the end of 2008, a European Union mission wrote that, "Long-standing Israeli plans for Jerusalem, now being implemented at an accelerated rate, are undermining prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and a sustainable two-state solution." According to the report, it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits in Jerusalem, resulting in the destruction of over 400 Palestinian homes since 2004. Meanwhile, Israel continues to expand and to build new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Since the Annapolis peace talks at the end of 2007, almost 5,500 new housing units for Israelis were submitted for public review, almost 3,000 of which have been approved. The majority of these are in large settlement blocs in East Jerusalem but there is also settlement activity in Palestinian areas of the Old City. Israel has almost completed building the 'security barrier', which cuts off East Jerusalem from the West Bank, making it so difficult for Palestinians without Jerusalem IDs to access Jerusalem that it has become almost prohibitive for them to do so. East Jerusalem is the location of important services for Palestinians, as well as being a cultural, religious and commercial centre. This means that Palestinians who do not have Jerusalem residency must apply for permits to go to hospital, to study and to visit holy sites in Jerusalem. During busy periods, it takes approximately an hour for Palestinians to cross the four checkpoints between Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

The issue of Jerusalem has been a major concern in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital - contrary to international law and its obligations as part of the peace process. If the international community is serious about Middle East peace, it must place serious pressure on Israel, not merely weak expressions of concern, to stop all settlement building in the occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, and it must allow Palestinians to live their lives in dignity, including having freedom of access to their holy sites and their institutions in East Jerusalem. People like you and me can also make a difference by boycotting Israeli-made goods and Israeli cultural and academic institutions until Israel realises that it cannot continue to ignore international law.

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