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Reports on Religious Freedom: Occupied Palestinian Territories

(2016)

Executive Summary

The Occupied Territories, which include the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, are subject to the jurisdiction of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), with the division of responsibilities overlapping in much of the territory. The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion, but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.” Violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Israel, Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank continued. During the year, 91 Palestinians and eight Israelis were killed in attacks outside the Green Line in Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Because religion and ethnicity or nationality were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity. Visits by Jewish Temple Mount activists to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount facilitated by Israeli authorities increased to record levels during the year; there were fewer incidents of violence at the site, as compared to last year. The Israeli government, in accordance with the status quo understanding with the Jordanian authorities managing the site, acted to prevent non-Muslim worship at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount but increased numbers of Jewish Temple Mount activists visited and sometimes conducted religious rituals on the site during the year in violation of this understanding, according to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf (the Jordanian-funded Islamic trust and charitable organization that administers the site), Jewish Temple Mount movement groups, and local media. The Israeli government, citing security, continued to prevent Knesset members and government ministers from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The Israeli government, citing security, also continued to impose intermittent restrictions on Palestinian access to some religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Israeli authorities restricted broad Muslim access at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for fewer days than in 2015. Waqf officials said police increased restrictions on Waqf operations and renovation and repair projects at the site. Travel restrictions such as limited access for Palestinians between the West Bank and Jerusalem during major Jewish holidays, along with further construction of Israel’s separation barrier, impeded the movements of Muslims and Christians. Israeli authorities permitted Muslims and Christians to pray at the Western Wall, but limited Palestinian access to the site for what they stated were security reasons. Israeli Orthodox Jewish leaders enforced gender separation for Jewish worshippers there. The Israeli government did not implement a cabinet agreement reached in January to establish a Reform, Conservative, and mixed gender prayer platform along a separate portion of the Western Wall. Reform, Conservative, and women’s Jewish groups including some Orthodox Jewish women’s groups lobbied for the proposal, whereas ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious leaders and political figures continued to oppose the plan. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other leaders condemned “price tag” attacks (violence and property crimes by Jewish extremist groups, directed against Muslim and Christian Palestinians and their religious sites with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions the government had taken against the group committing the violence.). The Israeli government arrested or detained tens of people for these attacks, but local human rights groups and media reported authorities rarely prosecuted cases successfully. In January Israel indicted two Jewish suspects in the deadly July 2015 arson attack on a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Douma, but no convictions had been handed down as of December. Proselytizing religious groups not recognized by the PA, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelicals, had difficulty gaining acceptance of personal status documents (such as marriage certificates) they issued. Religiously intolerant material continued to appear in official PA media. Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, enforced restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia, and frequently broadcast anti-Semitic material in Hamas-controlled media.

There were incidents of violence that perpetrators justified on religious grounds. Rock-throwing Palestinian youths attacked Jewish visitors to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus and the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Palestinians reportedly committed arson against a West Bank settlement synagogue near Hebron and vandalized the Mount of Olives cemetery and a Jerusalem synagogue. “Price tag” attacks by suspected Jewish extremists included assaults on Christian clergy, vandalism and anti-Christian graffiti at the Dormition Abbey and the Greek and Armenian Orthodox cemeteries on Mt. Zion near Jerusalem’s Old City, and arson attacks at several more homes in the West Bank village of Douma. Jewish groups opposed to interacting with other religions continued their harassment and assault of Palestinian Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem. Some Jews harassed Christian clergy in Jerusalem, and at religious sites Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews harassed visitors and Jewish worshippers whose practices did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions at religious sites.

Officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem met with PA officials to discuss religious tolerance and concerns about access to religious sites. Consulate general officials expressed concerns about UNESCO resolutions backed by the PA that minimized or ignored the Jewish historical and religious connection to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Western Wall. Visiting senior U.S. government officials including the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote tolerance and cooperation against religious prejudice. Consulate general officers met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the Palestinian population at 2.7 million in the West Bank and 1.8 million in the Gaza Strip (July 2016 estimates). According to U.S. estimates, the Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims. The 2014 statistics published by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) estimate 521,000 Jews live in Jerusalem – including areas in East Jerusalem which Israel took over in 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1980 – accounting for approximately 61 percent of the city’s population. JIIS estimates the Muslim population of Jerusalem at 303,400 and the Arab Christian population of Jerusalem at 12,300. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 385,000 Jews reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank as of 2015. Although there is no official count, in 2008 there were approximately 52,000 Christians residing in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem according to a survey conducted by the Diyar Consortium, a Lutheran ecumenical institution. The Holy See estimates the Christian population in the West Bank to be below 2 percent of the overall population, or fewer than 54,000 Palestinians. According to a YMCA survey of Christians in Gaza, there were approximately 1,300 Christians residing there as of March 2014. According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at increased levels since 2001. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Copts, Maronites, Ethiopian Orthodox, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations. Christians are concentrated primarily in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus, although smaller communities exist elsewhere. Approximately 360 Samaritans (practitioners of Samaritanism, which is related to but distinct from Judaism) as well as a small number of evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses reside in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The inhabitants of the different portions of the Occupied Territories are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities. Israelis living in East Jerusalem fall under Israel’s civil and criminal law system (the Israeli government formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, although no other government, including the United States, has recognized this annexation). Palestinian residents (not holding Israeli citizenship) of Jerusalem are also subject to Israeli civil and criminal law. Israelis living in West Bank settlements are nominally subject to military law but Israeli authorities apply Israeli civil and criminal law to them. Palestinians living in the portion of the West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord fall under Israel’s military legal system for criminal and security issues as well as civil issues, while Palestinians who live in Area B fall under PA civil law and Israeli military law for criminal and security issues. Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies Israeli military law whenever its military enters Area A. The Gaza Strip officially comes under the jurisdiction of an interim PA government, although Hamas exercises de facto authority over it.

An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction. The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion, but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.” It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. The Basic Law states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation.

There is no specified process by which religious organizations gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA. Nineteenth century status quo arrangements reached with the Ottoman authorities, which are observed by the PA, recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox Churches. Later agreements with the PA recognized the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) and Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Legally recognized religious groups are empowered to adjudicate personal status matters. They may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities.

Churches not officially recognized, but with unwritten understandings with the PA based on the basic principles of the status quo agreements, including the Assemblies of God, the Nazarene Church, and some Baptist churches, may operate freely and some may perform some official functions such as issuing marriage licenses. Churches not recognized by the PA generally must obtain special one-time permission from the PA to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters if these groups want the ceremonies to be recognized by and registered with the PA. These churches may not proselytize. There are a small number of churches which became active within the last decade and whose legal status remains uncertain.

By law, Islamic institutions and places of worship receive financial support from the government.

Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates. There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religious courses. Recognized churches operate private schools which include religious instruction in the West Bank. Private Islamic schools also operated in the West Bank. Churches also operate “recognized but unofficial” (a form of semiprivate) schools in East Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf operates private schools in East Jerusalem; both include religious instruction.

Islamic or Christian religious courts handle legal matters relating to personal status, including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support. For Muslims, sharia determines personal status law, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians. Legally, members of one religious group may submit a personal status dispute to a different religious group for adjudication if the disputants agree it is appropriate to do so.

Six seats in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council (which has not met since 2007) are reserved for Christians; there are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group. In August the PA renewed a decree mandating a majority-Christian quota for city councils and a Christian mayor in eight West Bank municipalities because these cities are historically Christian areas.

Government Practices

Violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Israel, Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank continued. During the year 91 Palestinians and 8 Israelis were killed in attacks outside the Green Line in Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity.

Visits by Jewish Temple Mount activists facilitated by Israeli authorities to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount increased to record levels during the Jewish holidays and Israeli national holidays. In April, June, and August there were incidents of violence at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound, usually after Muslim visitors or Waqf guards (a Jordanian government body entrusted with the care of Muslim sites in Jerusalem) said they observed Jewish visitors who were praying on the site. In a break from past practices, Israeli authorities that facilitated these visits also permitted non-Muslim visits to the site during some of the last 10 days of Ramadan. Israeli police, citing security concerns, restricted broad Muslim access at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on two days, compared to 27 days in 2015. The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif from entering the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. In addition, travel restrictions, such as limits on travel between the West Bank and Jerusalem for Jewish holidays, as well as further construction of the Israeli separation barrier, impeded the ability of Muslims to enter Jerusalem and Christian clergy to reach churches to conduct services. The authorities permitted both Muslims and Christians to pray at the Western Wall, although Israeli security restrictions limited the access of Palestinians to the Western Wall Plaza.

Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall were separated by gender. The Israeli government did not implement a cabinet agreement reached in January – reflecting initial compromise arrangements between Reform and Conservative and women’s Jewish groups, some Orthodox Jewish women’s groups, and the Rabbi of the Western Wall – to establish a Reform, Conservative, and mixed gender prayer platform south of the women’s section of the Western Wall. The Israeli government and the PA sometimes prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting Jewish religious sites in PA-controlled territory in the West Bank for security reasons.

Religiously intolerant material continued to appear in official PA media. Israeli and PA officials condemned “price-tag” attacks and vandalism, but prosecutions were rarely successful, according to local human rights groups.

Israeli forces killed 91 Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, including some who killed or were reportedly attempting to kill or attack Israelis. Palestinian groups and unaffiliated individuals carried out attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem that resulted in the deaths of eight Israelis, including five civilians and three Israeli security forces officers. For example on July 1, a Palestinian shot and killed 48-year-old Israeli Michael Mark and injured his wife and two children near the West Bank settlement of Otniel. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fatally shot the suspected attacker, 29-year-old Muhammad Jbarah Ahmad al-Faqih, during a clash in the West Bank town of Surif on July 27.

In some cases the Palestinians killed reportedly did not pose a threat to life at the time they were shot, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) published reports saying that Israeli security forces committed unlawful killings. For example, on March 24, IDF soldier Elor Azaria fatally shot 20-year-old Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif after he stabbed and injured a soldier in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron. Human rights groups reported that eyewitness video footage indicated Azaria shot al-Sharif in the head after he lay injured and incapacitated on the ground. As of December, Azaria remained on trial for manslaughter. On June 20, Israeli security forces opened fire at a car of Palestinian teenagers, killing 15- year-old Mahmoud Badran and wounding four others. The IDF initially announced that the security forces had “targeted terrorists” during a search operation in the area for Palestinian suspects who had reportedly thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli vehicles on a nearby highway. The IDF later revised its account to say that “uninvolved bystanders were mistakenly hit during the pursuit.” The IDF’s Military Police Investigative Unit launched an investigation, which remained open as of December.

In January the Israel Central District Attorney’s Office indicted two Jewish suspects in the July 2015 “price tag” arson attack on a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Douma, which killed a toddler and his parents and severely injured his four-year-old brother. The perpetrators also spray-painted “Revenge!” and a Star of David on the wall of the home. The trial continued throughout the year without any convictions being handed down.

On May 4, a Jerusalem court sentenced the last of three Jewish suspects in the 2014 kidnapping and killing of 16-year old Muhammad Abu Khdeir to life imprisonment plus 20 years.

There were isolated incidents of violence during visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by Jewish Temple Mount activists. The visits were facilitated by Israeli authorities. On April 26, Israeli police clashed with guards employed by the Waqf, resulting in injuries to the guards, after three Jewish Temple Mount activists lay on the ground and began to pray during their tour of the site. The Waqf director and an Israeli police commander intervened to calm the situation. Beginning June 26, in a break from past practices, Israeli authorities permitted non-Muslim visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount during some of the last 10 days of Ramadan. During and following these visits, violent confrontations broke out between small numbers of stone-throwing Muslim youth and Israeli police, who responded with stun grenades and batons, leading to injuries on both sides. Separately, on August 14, during the visit of a then-record number of Jewish Temple Mount activists (403, compared to 326 in 2015) for the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av – commemorating the destruction of the Jewish temples – police using batons injured three Muslim worshippers after they sought to confront seven Jewish activists who prayed or tore their clothing in traditional mourning for the temple.

Palestinians reportedly threw stones and clashed with IDF escorts during visits of Jewish groups to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus on several days during the year. The IDF used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse Palestinian protesters, to secure the site, and/or to evacuate Jewish worshippers.

The PA continued to implement its policy of providing imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and prohibited them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.

Nonrecognized churches such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups, which faced a ban on their normal practice of proselytization, reported they were able to conduct most other operations unhindered by the PA. The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents issued by some of these nonrecognized groups, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives reported that the PA issued birth certificates for their members but would not issue marriage licenses, resulting in children born to these couples listed as having been born out of wedlock, which also complicated inheritance claims. Many nonrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad in order to register the action officially in the second country.

The Israeli government continued to control access by Muslims and Jews to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Although the Waqf continued to administer some aspects of the site, the Israeli government restricted the Waqf’s ability to control visitors’ access. In accordance with status quo arrangements with the Waqf, the Israeli government continued to prevent non-Muslim worship and prayer at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but also imposed access restrictions on Muslim worshippers in what the Waqf said was a breach of the status quo, including temporary blanket age restrictions on two days during the year. The Israeli National Police (INP) continued to be responsible for security at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and regulated pedestrian traffic in and out of the site.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over what they said were violations by Israeli police of the status quo arrangements regarding control of access to the site, saying Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions to allow non-Muslim visitors onto the site or to restrict access to broad categories of Muslim worshippers or to individual Palestinians whom police suspected could disrupt the non-Muslim visits. For example, during the Tisha B’Av holiday on August 14, Israeli police imposed broad access restrictions, for the first time since October 2015, barring Muslim visitors under 50 from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount during that morning’s Jewish activists’ tours. On December 12, Israeli police unilaterally extended the daily visiting hours for non-Muslims at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by as much as one hour, which the Waqf also said was a breach of the status quo. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza but Waqf officials said they were able to exercise only a reduced oversight role. They reportedly could object to the presence of particular persons, such as individuals dressed immodestly or causing disturbances, but lacked the authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials reported the Israeli police on occasion briefly detained Waqf guards or expelled them from the site and from the vicinity of visiting Jewish activist groups. Israeli police also arrested Waqf maintenance employees conducting renovation work inside the Dome of the Rock for failing to conduct the work under the supervision of the Israel Antiquities Authority (whose authority on the site the Waqf does not recognize). Police released the employees several days later. Police also prevented the Waqf from carrying out routine repairs, such as to leaking water pipes, as well as 20 major renovation projects, and refused to permit the entry of most maintenance equipment onto the site, according to the Waqf. Police citing security concerns prohibited delivery of iftar meals to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount during several days of Ramadan. Waqf officials said that the Israel police’s regular use of a small electric patrol vehicle, which struck and injured a Waqf guard, on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – beginning during Ramadan and continuing throughout the year – was unprecedented and another violation of the status quo.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated rules against non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu continued to instruct police to bar sitting government ministers and members of Knesset from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, saying it would help calm tensions at the site. Some Jewish as well as Arab Muslim members of Knesset condemned their inclusion in the ban. Israeli police continued to enforce “black lists” barring at least 50 Muslim men and women they accused of verbally harassing Jewish visitors to the site. Israeli police said some of these banned Muslim worshippers had objected vocally to what they perceived as attempts by Jewish Temple Mount activists to break the injunction against non-Muslim prayer on the site.

According to media reports, the Israeli government permitted approximately 100-200 Gazans over the age of 60, as well as UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) staff in Gaza, to transit the Erez crossing to Jerusalem for weekly Friday prayers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for most weeks throughout the year. On December 6, Israeli authorities cancelled most of these permits indefinitely, saying some of those receiving permits did not return through Erez the same day; the Israeli government continued to permit UNRWA staff to transit Erez for Friday prayers in Jerusalem.

Muslim officials, including representatives of the Waqf, continued to object to Israeli restrictions on access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for Muslim worshippers, and they opposed calls from some Israeli groups to divide visiting hours between Muslims and non-Muslims and to allow non-Muslim prayer there.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque – a practice it started in 2003 when Israel ended coordination with the Waqf over non-Muslim visits. The Waqf also lodged objections with Israeli police over non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing, such as Jewish prayer shawls, on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The INP sometimes acted upon these objections and/or enforced the restrictions of its own accord.

Israeli police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious paraphernalia, and prohibited them from praying publicly on the site. Israeli police continued to have exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance – the only entrance through which non-Muslims could enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – and allowed visitors through the gate during set visiting hours, although the police sometimes restricted this access due to what they stated were security concerns. For example, Israeli police continued to enforce a six-month restraining order issued in November 2015 that prohibited a leader of a Jewish Temple Mount activist group, Return to the Mount, from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after the group publicly advocated Jewish prayer during visits to the site and offered monetary rewards to activists who were arrested for praying on the site. Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas, but did not coordinate with Waqf guards inside.

Despite the Israeli government’s policy prohibiting non-Muslim worship at the site, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration. Incidents of attempted Jewish prayer at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount increased from previous years, according to local NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount movement groups, and occurred on a near-weekly basis. During Jewish holidays, such as Passover, Tisha B’Av, and Sukkot, tens of Jewish Temple Mount activists engaged in prayer on the site. In most cases, Israeli police acted to prevent them from praying and removed them, but in other cases, some of which were documented on social media in photos and videos, the police appeared not to notice the acts of prayer. Some Jewish Temple Mount activists toured the site in bare feet, consistent with their interpretation of Jewish tradition at the temple, to which the Waqf raised objections. Israeli authorities sometimes barred individual Jewish Temple Mount activists who had repeatedly violated rules against non-Muslim prayer on the site, including Temple Mount movement leaders.

Some government coalition Knesset members and Israeli NGOs, such as the Temple Institute and Temple Mount Faithful, continued to call on the Israeli government to implement a temporal division at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to set aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Several coalition Knesset members and government ministers in November publicly criticized the status quo arrangements at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount as restricting Jewish rights there, and called for the Israeli authorities to end the ban on Knesset members’ and government ministers’ visits and/or the ban on non-Muslim prayer.

The Israeli government continued to permit both Muslims and Christians to pray at the Western Wall, the place of worship nearest the holiest site in Judaism, although Israeli police frequently limited access to Palestinians to the Western Wall Plaza for what they stated were security reasons. The Rabbi of the Western Wall continued to set the guidelines for religious observance mandating the separation of women and men, which the Israeli government continued to enforce. Men and women at the Western Wall had to use separate areas to visit and pray, with the women’s section being less than half the size of the men’s section. The Jewish authorities continued to prevent women from accessing the public Torah scrolls at the site for use in the women’s section (both men and women were barred from bringing outside Torah scrolls into the Plaza) and giving the priestly blessing. They continued, however, to allow both men and women to practice their religious rituals as desired on a temporary mixed gender platform located south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall. The Israeli government designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism and in January approved a plan to establish a permanent, expanded prayer platform for these groups there. Non-Orthodox and mixed gender groups continued to use the temporary platform for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. This accommodation of the desire for “egalitarian” Jewish prayer (permitting Reform, Conservative, and/or mixed gender prayer) remained a subject of debate in the Jewish community throughout the year. Ultra-orthodox Jewish leaders including the Rabbi of the Western Wall and some members of Knesset continued to oppose egalitarian prayer spaces at the traditional Western Wall Plaza, as well as the establishment of a different permanent egalitarian prayer area, and the government did not implement the January cabinet agreement. Activist groups such as Women of the Wall, an NGO and prayer group, supported the plan to establish a permanent mixed gender prayer space, but Women of the Wall and other Jewish women’s groups also continued to assert their demands to conduct Jewish prayer services, including the use of Torah scrolls and the priestly blessing, at the traditional Western Wall site.

The Israeli police continued to assist Women of the Wall to enter the women’s area of the Western Wall for its monthly service, but sometimes enforced Jewish authorities’ prevailing guidelines for religious observance there as well. In April police prevented ultra-Orthodox protesters from disrupting a Passover prayer service sponsored by Women of the Wall in the women’s section. On June 7, police briefly detained the executive director of Women of the Wall for questioning on charges of breaching public order after she smuggled a private Torah scroll into the Western Wall Plaza for use in an egalitarian prayer service. On November 2, ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters and officials of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation tried to physically prevent the Women of the Wall from bringing Torah scrolls into the women’s section for prayers. Following the clashes, Israeli police and border guards separated Women of the Wall activists, along with Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders, from the protesters. The police did not make any arrests.

The Israeli police continued to put up security checkpoints in the Old City during major religious holidays, including the Orthodox Easter holiday, which Christian leaders said reduced the ability of congregants and clergy to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to participate in religious services. Israeli police agreed to increase the number of Christian pilgrims permitted through security checkpoints in the Old City during these holidays, but church officials reported there was no improvement in coordination between police and Christian leaders to deal with the resulting increase in pedestrian traffic to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. During busy periods the Israeli police site commander continued to provide security and facilitate access to the church and managed tensions between followers of different streams of Christianity at the site, according to some Christian leaders. Other Christian leaders said police used excessive force in their efforts to regulate crowds in the Old City during the Easter events.

The Israeli government imposed increased movement restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank, October 2-4 for the Rosh Hashanah holiday, October 11-12 for the Yom Kippur holiday, and October 16-24 for the Sukkot and Simchat Torah holidays. As in previous such closures, during these periods authorities prohibited Palestinian West Bank residents including those who held Israeli-issued access permits, from entering Jerusalem or Israel, except those working for international organizations or in a humanitarian capacity.

The Israeli government again announced it had increased the number of permits for Palestinians from the West Bank to access Jerusalem for religious holidays, such as during Christmas season, from December to January, and for Ramadan, June 5-July 5, but Palestinian Muslim and Christian leaders said the Israeli government prevented many of these permits from being used in practice. For example, they stated Israel had granted permits to some but not all members of the same immediate family thereby discouraging families not wishing to be separated from children or others from traveling. The Israeli government provided fewer special permits than in 2015 to West Bank Muslims during Ramadan for access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount or to Jerusalem for family unification visits. Israeli authorities also revoked at least 83,000 travel permits for West Bank Palestinians during Ramadan following a Palestinian terror attack in Tel Aviv, in which the two perpetrators shot and killed four Israelis.

The Israeli government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A). While these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting several Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A of the West Bank, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus – a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Some Jewish religious leaders said this policy prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several Jewish religious sites in the West Bank, such as Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than may be permitted through IDF coordination. IDF officials said that requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were needed to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety. For example, the IDF escorted buses carrying hundreds of Jewish Israelis for overnight visits to Joseph’s Tomb on October 9 and 19. The IDF clashed with Palestinian protesters from the nearby Balata refugee camp during these and other visits. On November 8, PA police briefly detained four Jewish Israelis for attempting to visit Joseph’s Tomb without coordinating with Israeli or Palestinian authorities. The PA police transferred the four Israelis to IDF custody.

According to local Palestinian political leaders and the local press, Israeli authorities continued to prevent most Palestinians from accessing Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims and under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, but continued to allow relatively unimpeded access to Jewish visitors. Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays, for the Sabbath (Shabbat). Police forcibly dispersed dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters who tried to visit the Tomb on the night of November 11 during the Sabbath and arrested two of the Jewish protesters who threw rocks, smashing a Palestinian driver’s windshield.

The IDF continued to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham. Muslim leaders continued to oppose publicly, in statements to local media, the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo-era agreements which gave Israel and the PA shared responsibility for the site. The IDF again restricted Muslim access on 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays and Jewish access on 10 days corresponding to Muslim holidays. The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point with IDF security screening. The IDF granted Jews access to several entry points without security screening. The IDF also periodically closed roads approaching the site, and since 2001 has permanently closed Shuhada Street to Palestinian pedestrians, citing security concerns. Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously but in separate physical spaces. Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Muslim call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, saying it disturbed the Jewish settlers in the surrounding areas or posed a security concern.

Israeli authorities blocked all of the access roads to the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil, north of Jerusalem, June 4 to 6 to facilitate the visit of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis to the nearby Tomb of Samuel, which is also of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims and is collocated inside a mosque. Palestinian residents were prevented from leaving the village or receiving outside visitors during this period. Local NGOs reported this was the first year in which the Palestinian village was forcibly closed during the annual Jewish pilgrimage festival.

Israeli authorities threatened and in some cases attempted to enforce restrictions on the volume level of the call to prayer from some mosques in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. On November 3, a spokesperson for the Jerusalem Municipality said the municipality was developing a plan in collaboration with Israeli police to issue and enforce noise regulations for the call to prayer from mosques in East Jerusalem. The spokesperson said the plan would respect freedom of worship while allowing “reasonable quiet” for Jerusalem residents. The PA and other Palestinian officials condemned the plan. On November 4, Israeli security forces raided the Palestinian West Bank (Area B) town of Abu Dis, just east of Jerusalem, and instructed three mosques to stop broadcasting the call to prayer using electronic loudspeakers, according to the head of the local town council.

The Israeli government continued building the separation barrier, particularly south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem stated the barrier impeded their work. Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints impeded their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship. For example, Christian leaders said the separation barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier. Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier.

The Israeli Ministry of Defense (MOD) in June completed construction of what the MOD and Israel High Court stated they considered a temporary segment of the separation barrier south of Jerusalem, near the Cremisan Valley convent of Salesian nuns and their school containing approximately 170 Muslim and Christian Palestinian students. Despite appeals from the convent and affected landowners, the Israeli High Court of Justice issued a ruling in January permitting the MOD to continue construction of the barrier in the area as a temporary measure, on the condition that the MOD leave a 225-meter (738-foot) gap near the convent, include an agricultural access gate for residents separated from their land, and afford these communities the opportunity to approve or appeal the final route of the barrier when it is submitted by the MOD. According to the convent leadership, local Christian advocacy NGOs, and Jerusalem-based church leaders, the completed (temporary) barrier impeded access to the convent and school from the Palestinian communities in nearby Beit Jala. These groups also said the gate would not provide area residents reliable access to privately-owned agricultural lands.

Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority demolished 12 gravestones on two different occasions in July and November in the Muslim Bab al-Rahmeh cemetery, adjacent to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Israeli officials said the gravestones lay in an expanded area of the cemetery that Israel considers a national park, where private construction is prohibited. Palestinian officials and Muslim religious leaders condemned the destruction and said all graves lie within the documented historical borders of the cemetery. On December 12, Israeli police intervened to prevent the burial of a Palestinian woman in a section of the cemetery Israeli authorities considered to be part of the zoned national parkland, and briefly detained two family members.

Jerusalem municipal regulations specified that city budget requests for the construction of new houses of worship in Jerusalem must be used for the establishment of synagogues, and as written provided no funding to support construction of new churches or mosques in the city, according to a city council representative and local media.

The PA Ministry of Waqf (religious endowments) and Religious Affairs continued to pay for the construction of new mosques, the maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and the salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank. The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.

Authorities continued to enforce rulings by Israel’s High Court declaring the segregation of men and women on public streets and sidewalks in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem to be illegal.

Although the PA removed the religious affiliation category from Palestinian identity cards in 2014, older identity cards continued to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian per requirements existing before 2014.

There continued to be instances in which official PA media carried religiously intolerant and anti-Semitic material. In January PA television aired a documentary stating European countries sought to expel Jews and support a Jewish homeland in Israel because these countries suffered from European Jews’ “schemes, character traits, monopolies, and corruption.” After Morad Bader Abdullah Adais, a Palestinian teenager, was sentenced on November 2 to life imprisonment for killing Otniel settlement resident Dafna Meir, the media reported that, according to his January 14 indictment, Adais had confessed to being motivated by anti-Semitic incitement on “Palestinian media.”

PA President Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (CRIHL) – a group bringing together the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the heads of churches in Jerusalem, and the chief judge of the PA sharia courts – continued to condemn “price tag” attacks. The Israeli government continued to designate “price tag” perpetrators as members of “illicit organizations,” and an Israeli police unit specialized in investigating “price tag” attacks and other attacks on places of worship. Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating all known instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests where possible, although NGOs, religious institutions, and the media continued to state that those arrests rarely led to successful prosecutions. Many “price tag” attacks reportedly continued to go unprosecuted. For example, in March and July, residents of the Palestinian village of Douma, south of Nablus, reported that suspected Jewish settlers set fire to two homes of members of the extended family which was targeted in the deadly arson attack in July 2015. Israeli authorities did not identify any suspects for the March and July arson attacks.

The CRIHL issued statements condemning “price tag” attacks including desecration of religious sites, such as the arson of the outpost synagogue in Givat Sorek, but did not meet in full during the year.

Observers of archaeological practices in Jerusalem and the West Bank continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority, an Israeli government entity, exploited archaeological finds bolstering Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds of other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites. Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh said the development of an archaeological site near the West Bank settlement of Shiloh associated with the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant displaced Palestinians who lived within the site. An Israeli State Comptroller report in April said the Israel Antiquities Authority had authorized Elad, a private Israeli settler group, to conduct an archaeological dig in the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, near the Israeli “City of David” tourist center, which NGOs said improperly excavated layers of Muslim Mamluk, Byzantine Christian, and Roman ruins to expose building remains dating to the period of the Second Jewish Temple. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation continued to promote ongoing archaeological excavations north and west of the Western Wall Plaza, including in tunnels underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, which the Waqf stated were altering the religious landscape of the area around the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In December Emek Shaveh, an Israeli archaeological NGO in Jerusalem, petitioned the Israeli High Court to nullify the Israel Ministry of Religious Services’ declaration of the Western Wall tunnels as an exclusively Jewish holy site. The NGO said the excavations also unearthed a Christian chapel, Muslim school, and Muslim Mamluk-era buildings.

The Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy from entering and working. Christian advocates from multiple denominations continued to express concerns about the difficulty of obtaining visas for clergy. The Israeli government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank or Jerusalem to single entry visas, which local parish leaders in the West Bank said complicated needed travel to other areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem, such as Jordan. Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays before they received visas, and reported periodic denials of their visa applications. The Israeli government stated visa delays or denials were due to security processing. Officials from multiple churches expressed concerns that non-Arab visa applicants and visa renewal applicants also faced long delays.

According to some church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy from entering Gaza, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority. Israel facilitated visits by clergy including bishops from non-Arab countries to Gaza on multiple occasions, such as delegations from Europe, North America, and South Africa in January and November.

According to church leaders and lay Palestinians, a combination of factors continued to provide the impetus for increased Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank, including the limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions maintained by the municipality in Jerusalem or Israeli authorities in Area C; the difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; Israeli government family reunification restrictions; taxation problems; and economic hardship created by Israeli-imposed travel restrictions.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other militant and terrorist groups were active in Gaza.

In Gaza, there continued to be instances where Hamas “morality police” or internal security officers punished men and women with fines for infractions such as dressing “inappropriately,” (e.g., wearing Western-style or close-fitting clothing, such as jeans or T-shirts, or not wearing a head covering) in public areas, although according to media and local NGOs, enforcement was inconsistent.

Christian groups reported Hamas tended to tolerate the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law. Israeli military operations in 2014 damaged many Christian buildings and destroyed Christian homes, leaving them concerned about their continued ability to live there. In April Palestinian Christians accused Hamas authorities in Gaza of failing to prevent damage to the remains of a Byzantine church unearthed during excavations for the construction of a shopping mall in Gaza city.

In April an imam affiliated with the Gaza Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs led schoolchildren in a compulsory mass repentance event that Palestinian political groups criticized as traumatizing and harmful to the children and an attempt to forcibly indoctrinate them in a conservative interpretation of Islam.

Some Muslim students continued to attend schools run by Christian institutions or NGOs in Gaza.

According to media accounts, Hamas’ de facto control of Gaza continued to prevent the PA from investigating and prosecuting Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination, including reported anti-Christian bias in private sector hiring and in police investigations of anti-Christian harassment.

Militant and terrorist groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, frequently issued anti-Semitic statements. In November a Hamas official appearing on Al Jazeera television said the most important thing in Judaism was money and accused Jewish Americans of buying off U.S. presidents. Hamas-run media continued to broadcast anti-Semitic programming including encouraging violence against Jews. For example, in April Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa television aired an interview with a Palestinian economist who claimed that “global Jewish hegemony” caused the 2008 global financial crisis. In August Al-Aqsa television broadcast a sermon from a Hamas legislator calling the Jewish people “the vilest nation in history.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In addition to the wave of societal/nationalist violence, there were other incidents of violence including deadly violence which perpetrators said was justified at least partly on religious grounds. Actions included killings, physical and verbal attacks on worshipers and clergy, and vandalism against religious sites. There was also harassment by members of one religious group against another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and anti-Semitic media items.

On June 30, a Palestinian teenager stabbed to death 13-year-old Israeli American dual citizen Hallel Ariel in her home in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba. The attacker, 16-year-old Muhammad Naser Mahmoud Tarayrah, also stabbed and wounded a private settlement security guard before the guard shot and killed him.

On November 10, unknown gunmen in Gaza killed Mithqal al-Salmi, a local activist, who was known to support Shia Islam. Hamas-run police had previously arrested al-Salmi in February for posting pro-Iran and Hezbollah stories and casting doubt about Sunni scholars on Facebook. Hamas police in Gaza announced they were investigating the shooting.

Palestinian youths threw stones and Molotov cocktails and committed other acts of violence against Jewish visitors to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. For example, on August 23, rock-throwing local Palestinians attacked Jewish groups visiting Joseph’s Tomb without a security escort, according to local press, resulting in injuries to two of the Jewish Israelis, before the IDF intervened to disperse the Palestinian suspects.

Suspected Jewish militants carried out “price tag” attacks against Christian and Muslim religious properties, including assaults on Christian clergy and vandalism and anti-Christian graffiti at the Dormition Abbey and the Greek and Armenian Orthodox cemeteries on Mt. Zion near Jerusalem’s Old City, and arson at several homes in the West Bank village of Douma. The graffiti painted at the Dormition Abbey in January included Stars of David, a bloody sword, and dozens of anti-Christian slogans such as “send Christians to hell, you must slay the idolaters;” “erase [Jesus’] name and memory;” and “the revenge of Israel’s sons is coming.”

Palestinian youths reportedly committed arson and vandalism against the Mount of Olives cemetery and synagogues in Jerusalem and at a West Bank Israeli settlement near Hebron. In February Palestinian suspects set fire to the makeshift synagogue in the Givat Sorek outpost settlement near Hebron, destroying several Torah scrolls. In September suspects spray-painted crosses on the side of a Jerusalem synagogue. In November two Jewish tombs dating roughly to the Second Temple period, popularly known as “Absalom’s Pillar” and the “Tomb of Jehoshaphat,” located in the Kidron Valley at the foot of the Mount of Olives cemetery just east of the Old City, were burned in what Israeli authorities stated they suspected was a Palestinian arson attack. NGOs reported no other incidents in which Jewish gravestones at the cemetery were vandalized during the year, which some attributed to improved security monitoring around the cemetery.

Harassment of and attacks against Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem by Jewish groups reportedly increased. The Jewish Israeli organization Lehava continued to protest social relationships between Jews and Palestinians, made anti-Christian and anti-Muslim statements, and reportedly assaulted Palestinians in West Jerusalem. Israeli media reported that Palestinians or their Israeli employers filed at least 20 complaints of harassment and assault – including with rocks and pepper spray – by Lehava activists in central Jerusalem during the year. Israeli authorities rarely prosecuted these attacks successfully, failing to open investigations or closing cases for lack of evidence, according to local human rights groups and the media. In September the Jerusalem district attorney’s office closed its investigation into the beating of an Israeli Druze man in Jerusalem by suspected Lehava activists who overheard the man speaking Arabic, because according to police they lost the investigative file and had insufficient evidence to file charges. In January local media reported earlier public comments from the head of Lehava saying Christians were not welcome in Jerusalem, and that Jews should work to block their immigration to the city. In September Lehava leaders disrupted an Armenian church choir performance at a mall in downtown Jerusalem by shouting, “Christians, go to Syria!” and “Jew murderers!” Police removed two of the Lehava protesters when they refused to disperse.

Participants, including some from Lehava, in the “march of flags” on Jerusalem Day, commemorating Israel’s 1967 conquest of East Jerusalem, shouted anti-Muslim chants in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter such as “the Temple will be built, [Al-Aqsa] mosque will be burned,” and “Mohammed is dead.” Police arrested some Lehava supporters during the march. The Jewish Israeli organization Yad L’Achim reportedly continued to pressure Jewish women not to date Palestinian men and to warn Palestinian men to stay away from Jewish women. The organization also continued to encourage people to inform on Jewish-Palestinian couples.

Local Christian clergy said some Jewish Israelis in Jerusalem continued to subject them to nonphysical abuse, including insults and spitting. These incidents occurred most often near churches on the seam line between East and West Jerusalem, in the Old City, and near the shared holy site of the Cenacle (devotional site of the Last Supper)/David’s Tomb near the Old City.

Dozens of Jewish students tried to disrupt Greek Orthodox Pentecost prayer services at the Cenacle/David’s Tomb. The protesters reportedly yelled “we will tear down this abomination,” and, “you are evil,” and, “may the name of your so-called God be blotted out forever.” Israeli police ensured the protesters did not prevent the Orthodox service from continuing and arrested several demonstrators.

Drivers who operated motor vehicles in or near ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods on the Sabbath in Jerusalem reported incidents of harassment – such as slurs or spitting – by ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents in those neighborhoods. According to the local press, some ultra-Orthodox groups continued to criticize Jerusalem residents who did not adhere to their strict interpretation of Orthodox Jewish law on issues including whether businesses in non-ultra-Orthodox majority neighborhoods in Jerusalem – such as a major movie theater completed in West Jerusalem – could remain open on the Sabbath.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall continued to harass verbally visitors and Jewish worshippers who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as modest dress or gender segregation at the Western Wall Plaza. Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women pray at the Western Wall.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians, established Christian groups opposed their efforts to obtain official recognition from the PA because of their proselytizing.

Jewish proponents of accessing and performing religious rituals at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, such as Return to the Mount, the Temple Mount Faithful, and the Temple Institute, continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer at the site, although some Orthodox rabbis continued to discourage Jewish visits to the site. Some Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Islamic Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple. For example, a mock ritual sacrifice ceremony on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in April organized by Temple Mount movement activist groups during Passover included calls for the “abomination” on the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount to be removed and alluded to a time the site would be “flattened and cleaned” for the rebuilding of a Third Jewish Temple. The northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, a political and religious group opposed to participation in local or national governance, which the Israeli government declared illegal in November, continued to call on members to “defend” the Al-Aqsa mosque.

According to Palestinian sources, most Christian and Muslim families in the Occupied Territories reportedly continued to pressure their children, especially their daughters, to marry within their respective religious groups. Couples who challenged this societal norm, particularly Palestinian Christians or Muslims who sought to marry Jews, could encounter considerable societal and family opposition. Families sometimes disowned Muslim and Christian women who married outside their faith. NGOs and local clergy reported it was more difficult for Christian Palestinians to obtain a divorce because of restrictions by some churches, including the Latin (Catholic) and Anglican/Episcopal Churches, against deciding divorce cases in their courts handling personal status issues.

Independent Palestinian media outlets continued to broadcast anti-Semitic programming. Palestinian Awdah Television in July aired a children’s cartoon depicting Jews as evil and the representatives of Satan, fighting on his behalf and doing his bidding on earth.

According to local press and social media, some Israeli settlers in the West Bank continued to justify their attacks on Palestinian property, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees or “price tag” attacks, as necessary for the defense of Judaism.

On October 13, Chief Judge of the PA Sharia Courts Mahmoud al-Habash and Israeli Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef met at a summit in Jerusalem, alongside several other Israeli rabbis and Palestinian Muslim figures, to discuss religious tolerance. On November 17, a group of prominent Israeli and Palestinian religious figures met at a summit in Spain and issued a joint denunciation of religious violence and incitement. Among the participants were Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau; Sheikh Raed Badir – a leading Islamic sharia scholar and member of the Palestinian Ulama Council who also directs the Adam Center for Interreligious Dialogue; Sheikh Imad Falouji, one of the founders of the Izzadin Qassam armed wing of Hamas who became chairman of the Adam Center for Dialogue of Civilizations in Gaza; Melkite Archbishop George Bakuni; Auxiliary Bishop to the Latin (Catholic) Patriarch of Jerusalem William Shomali; Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan; and Greek-Orthodox Metropolitan of Bostroi Timotheos Margaritis.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

Officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem met with PA officials to discuss religious tolerance and their perceptions of changes to the status quo of religious sites, including Palestinian concerns about restrictions on Muslim access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. These discussions included requests to PA and PLO officials to remove religiously intolerant material or language glorifying violence from a Fatah party Facebook account and other Palestinian media and social media. Consulate general officials also expressed concerns about UNESCO resolutions sponsored by the PA that minimized or ignored the Jewish religious and historical connection to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Western Wall. Consulate general officers raised with local authorities the views and concerns expressed by both majority and minority religious groups.

Visiting senior U.S. officials including the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor met with politicians and local religious and civil society leaders to discuss religious tolerance and the need for cooperation against religious prejudice, such as “price tag” attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council met with local Palestinians to hear their concerns that construction of Israel’s separation barrier in the Cremisan Valley impeded access to the Catholic convent and school and agricultural lands near Beit Jala and Bethlehem.

The Consul General and consulate general officers met regularly with representatives of a full range of religious groups from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and where possible, the Gaza Strip. This included meetings with the Waqf and Muslim leaders in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank; meetings with Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, and representatives of various Jewish institutions; regular contacts with leaders of the CRIHL, the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates; and meetings with the Holy See’s Custodian of the Holy Land, leaders of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, and leaders of evangelical Christian groups. These meetings included discussions of the groups’ concerns about religious tolerance, access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship. For example, the Consul General visited the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives with the NGO International Committee for the Preservation of Har Hazeitim to discuss visitor access and safety, and acts of vandalism against gravestones there. Consulate officers spoke to local Christians’ concerns about impeded access to their agricultural lands and local monastery due to the construction of the Israeli separation barrier in the Cremisan Valley, and to Waqf officials about Muslim access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Israeli police restrictions on Waqf renovation projects there. Consulate officers also spoke with Jews, Christians, and Muslims who had suffered from “price-tag” attacks, including following up with family members about the condition of the five-year old sole survivor of the deadly July 2015 arson attack on a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Douma. Consulate general officers objected to instances of intolerant and anti-Semitic material in PA and Fatah party media and social media.

Consulate general officers examined a range of charges, including allegations of damage to places of worship, intolerant speech, and allegations concerning access to religious sites, and issued statements condemning these acts, including statements against “price tag” attacks.


Source:US State Department

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