Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza - West Bank and Gaza

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Report
May 29, 2018

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Executive SummaryShare    

This section includes the West Bank, Gaza, and issues primarily related to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. Issues primarily related to Israeli residents of Jerusalem are covered in the “Israel and the Golan Heights” section. On December 6, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercised varying degrees of authority in the West Bank and no authority over Jerusalem. Although PA laws apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA did not have authority there and Hamas continued to exercise de facto control of security and other matters. The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. Violence between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank continued. In July three Israeli Arab attackers shot and killed two Israeli National Police (INP) officers and injured a third at an entrance to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem. Citing security concerns, the INP temporarily closed the compound, and cancelled Muslim Friday prayers for the first time since 1969. PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman issued a public statement saying Abbas had condemned the attack and all acts of violence during a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The government of Israel unilaterally introduced new security measures for entering the compound, citing the need to improve security. The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf (the Government of Jordan Islamic trust and charitable entity that administers the site) rejected the measures as a violation of the status quo. Palestinians held sit-ins and protests, and clashes occurred between Palestinians and the Israeli Security Forces. The Chief Rabbinate continued to rule that Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount were religiously prohibited for reasons of ritual purity; however, visits by Jewish Temple Mount activists to the site facilitated by Israeli authorities increased to record levels during the year. The Israeli government, in accordance with the status quo, prohibited non-Muslim worship at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, although the Israeli police became more permissive of silent Jewish prayer and other religious rituals performed on the site, according to Temple Mount movement groups and Israeli media. The Israeli government continued to impose intermittent restrictions on Palestinian access to religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, citing security concerns. Continued travel restrictions impeded the movements of Muslims and Christians between the West Bank and Jerusalem. Proselytizing religious groups not recognized by the PA experienced difficulties in gaining acceptance of personal status documents they issued. Some official PA media channels as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling Fatah political movement featured content praising or condoning acts of violence, at times referring to assailants as “martyrs.” Some anti-Semitic content also appeared in Fatah and PA-controlled media. PA President Abbas maintained a commitment to pursue Palestinian national aspirations through nonviolent means in multiple public statements. Palestinian leaders, however, including President Abbas, did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks or speak out publicly against members of their institutions who advocated for violence. Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other extremist groups disseminated anti-Semitic materials, and incited violence via traditional and social media channels, as well as during rallies and other events. Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia. Senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders condemned various forms of ideologically-motivated offenses, including violent acts by Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians as well as property crimes. The Israeli government arrested or detained alleged suspects in such attacks, and indicted a prominent West Bank settlement rabbi for incitement to violence against Palestinians. Local human rights groups and media, however, reported authorities rarely convicted alleged offenders. The Israeli government criticized the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) July designation of the old city of Hebron, which encompasses the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, as an endangered World Heritage site, stating UNESCO’s approval of a Palestinian motion to recognize the old city as a heritage site was a deliberate attempt to diminish Jewish and Israeli connections to the area.

There were incidents of ideologically motivated violence. Sources stated that assailants were motivated by a variety of factors. In some cases, perpetrators justified violence on religious grounds. For example, on multiple occasions, Palestinian youths threw rocks at Jewish visitors to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. On July 21, a Palestinian assailant stabbed and killed three Israelis and critically injured a fourth in the Halamish settlement northwest of Ramallah; on social media the assailant attributed his attack to Israel’s security measures on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Various Israeli and Palestinian groups opposed to interacting with other religions continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation. Incidents of ideologically-motivated crimes against Palestinians occurred, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

President Trump, during a May visit to Bethlehem, publicly called for “a more peaceful, safe, and far more tolerant world.” Officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem met with Palestinian officials to express concern about religiously intolerant content and glorification of violence in traditional and social media, and to request the removal of this content. Consulate general officials also met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian and Muslim communities. Consulate general officials expressed concern about UNESCO resolutions backed by the PA that minimized or ignored the Jewish historical and religious connection to Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs. Visiting senior U.S. government officials, including the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, 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. Consulate general officers also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about steady Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank. Consulate general officers also discussed the Beit Jala Christian community’s concerns about impeded access to their agricultural lands and local monastery due to the construction of the Israeli security barrier in the Cremisan Valley. Officials from the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf and other Islamic religious figures met with consulate general officials to raise concerns about Israeli restrictions on Muslim access to and other matters pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

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 2017 estimates). According to U.S. estimates, the Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) estimates 536,600 Jewish Israelis live in Jerusalem – including areas in East Jerusalem which Israel captured in the 1967 War and unilaterally annexed in 1980 – accounting for approximately 61 percent of the city’s total population of 882,652. According to CBS, an estimated 332,600 Palestinians reside in Jerusalem, of whom approximately 12,000 are Palestinian Christians, and approximately another 2,000 residents who are non-Palestinian Christians. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reported an estimated 400,000 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to various estimates, approximately 50,000 Christians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports, there are approximately a thousand Christians residing in Gaza. According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics (Melkites), 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; 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 FreedomShare    

Legal Framework

The inhabitants of the different portions of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities. Israelis and Palestinians living in Jerusalem are 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 in practice. 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 sources 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, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. 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 evangelical Christian churches, may operate freely. 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 actions to be recognized by and registered with the PA. These churches may not proselytize. There are a small number of such 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 in the West Bank which include religious instruction. Private Islamic schools also operate 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.

Palestinian law provides that in the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council (that has not met since 2007) six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats. There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group. A presidential decree requires that Christians head nine municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for 10 West Bank municipal councils.

PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.” Under Israeli law, the Israel Land Administration (ILA), which manages 93 percent of Israel's land, may not lease land to foreign nationals.

Government Practices

Summary Paragraph: Violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces continued. Since 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. On July 14, three Muslim Israeli Arab attackers shot and killed two Druze INP officers and injured a third at an entrance to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, prompting Israeli police to close the compound and cancel Muslim Friday prayers. Following the compound’s reopening, the INP erected new security measures at entrances used by Muslim worshippers. The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf rejected the measures, characterizing them as a violation of the status quo understanding between Israeli and Jordanian authorities. Following protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the INP removed the equipment. In accordance with status quo arrangements with the Waqf, the Israeli government continued to prohibit non-Muslim prayer and other religious practices at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but Israeli police became more permissive of silent Jewish prayer and other religious rituals performed on the site, according to the Waqf and multiple NGO observers. Citing security concerns, the Israeli government 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 several days during the year. Visits by Jewish Temple Mount activists increased again during the year to record levels, and especially during Jewish and Israeli national holidays. Some Israeli NGOs and Members of Knesset (MKs) said the status quo arrangement restricted Jews’ freedom of worship. The Israeli government continued to permit both Muslims and Christians to pray at the Western Wall, although Israeli police frequently limited access to Palestinians to the Western Wall Plaza for what they stated were security reasons. Various Israeli and PA political and religious leaders continued to condemn ideologically-motivated violence. Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating known instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests where possible, although NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that those arrests rarely led to successful prosecutions. The Israeli government criticized the designation by UNESCO in July of the old city of Hebron, including the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, as an endangered World Heritage site in Palestinian territory. The Israelis stated that UNESCO’s approval of a Palestinian motion to recognize Hebron as a heritage site was a deliberate attempt to diminish Jewish and Israeli connections to the area.

On July 14, three Israeli Arab attackers shot and killed two INP officers and injured a third at the Bab al-Hutta entrance to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. Citing security concerns, Israeli police closed the compound and cancelled Muslim Friday prayers for the first time since 1969, when an Australian visitor set fire to the pulpit inside Al-Aqsa Mosque. The INP reopened the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount on July 16 to residents of the Old City but erected new security screening equipment, including metal detectors, at entrances to the site used by Muslim worshippers. The Waqf rejected these measures, characterizing them as a violation of the status quo. Muslim worshippers refused to enter the site pending full reversal of all newly imposed security measures. Protests included “days of rage,” sit-ins, and prayers. Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protestors were reported in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank through July 27. Tensions subsided July 27, and Muslims returned to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount when the INP removed the last of the newly installed equipment.

The Israeli government continued to control access to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The INP continued to be responsible for security, 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. Fatah and other Palestinian political factions organized protests (often using the term “days of rage”) throughout the year and called on Palestinians to defend the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

The Chief Rabbinate continued to rule that Jewish visits to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount were prohibited on religious grounds for reasons of ritual purity. Visits by Jewish Temple Mount activists facilitated by Israeli authorities to the site, however, increased again during the year to record levels. The Waqf expressed concern over these activists’ increased attempts to pray on the site in violation of the status quo, as well as over continuing calls by some activists to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and replace it with the Third Jewish Temple. According to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, activists associated with the Temple Mount movement conducted 25,628 visits to the site during the year, compared to approximately 14,800 in 2016. Visits reached a single-day record of 1,079 on Tisha b’Av (August 1), a day which commemorates multiple tragedies in Jewish history, including the destruction of the Jewish temples. The increase in visits on Tisha b’Av prompted criticism from Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, who reiterated that walking on the site is forbidden by Jewish law. According to Temple Mount movement groups and the Waqf, during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot, activists conducted 2,266 visits, a 40 percent increase over the comparable period in 2016. The INP permitted multiple groups to visit the site concurrently, expanding the permitted size of each groups to more than 70 persons, according to the Waqf, Temple Mount activist groups, and media reports. In accordance with previously instituted practices, Israeli police announced a temporary closure of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to non-Muslim visitors during the last 10 days of Ramadan; however, on several occasions the INP permitted non-Muslim visits to the site during that period.

The status quo understandings pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount prohibit non-Muslim worship on the compound, which some Israeli NGOs and MKs said restricted Jews’ freedom of worship. Some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police, however, performed religious acts such as prayers, weddings, and prostration. The incidence of such acts at the site represented an increase from previous years, according to local NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount movement groups, who also reported that changes in relations between the police and the Temple Mount movement created a more permissive environment for silent prayer. In some cases, Israeli police acted to prevent individuals from praying and removed them, but in other cases, some of which were documented on social media in photos and videos, 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 times of the two Jewish temples, 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 continued to call on the Israeli government to implement time-based 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. The Knesset Lobby for Strengthening the Jewish Connection to the Temple Mount, headed by MK Yehuda Glick and Chairman of the Jewish Home faction MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, organized a conference in December to urge the Chief Rabbinate to remove its religious ruling that Jewish visits to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount were prohibited. MK Yehuda Glick and other members of the Temple Mount movement continued to advocate to reverse the status quo prohibition on non-Muslim prayer at the site, describing it as a restriction on religious freedom.

Israeli police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious paraphernalia. 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 police sometimes restricted this access due to what they stated were security concerns. 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.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing, such as Jewish prayer shawls. The INP sometimes acted upon these objections and/or enforced the restrictions of its own accord.

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 Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Waqf’s administrative authorities on the site. Waqf officials stated 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. 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 also stated Israeli police challenged the Waqf’s authority by restricting its administration of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, particularly by prohibiting building and infrastructure repairs. For example, Israeli police prevented the Waqf from carrying out routine repairs without advance approval and oversight from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, and refused to permit the entry of most maintenance equipment onto the site, according to the Waqf. Waqf officials stated these restrictions impacted its ability to repair leaking water pipes and address electrical problems inside the Dome of the Rock and other buildings; in addition, these restrictions prevented the Waqf from pursuing approximately 20 major renovation projects. Waqf officials also reported Israeli police on occasion detained Waqf employees (typically guards) or expelled them from the site and from the vicinity of visiting Jewish activist groups.

According to media reports and the Waqf, Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists whom the INP had previously removed from the site for violating rules concerning non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures whom authorities feared would inflame tensions. During the year, Prime Minister Netanyahu continued to instruct police to bar sitting government ministers and MKs from visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. For the first time since 2015, however, he ordered police to permit MK visits for one day on August 29, and subsequently permitted MK Yehuda Glick to visit the site on October 25, according to the Waqf. 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 Muslims had objected to what they perceived as attempts by Jewish Temple Mount activists to break the status quo injunction against non-Muslim prayer on the site.

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. Palestinians threw stones and clashed with IDF escorts during visits of Jewish groups to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (located in Area A) 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.

According to Christian religious, political, and civil society leaders, a combination of factors continued to provide the impetus for increased Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank, including political instability; 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; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions.

Jerusalem-based Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the continuing decline of Christian population in Jerusalem, and in particular, about the departure of young Palestinian Christian families, which impacted the long-term viability of Jerusalem parishes. These Christian leaders noted that, of the approximately 14,000 Christians residing in Jerusalem, many were already married. As such, the pool of eligible marriage partners remained limited, compelling Palestinian Christians to search for spouses in the nearby Christian communities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and others, located in the West Bank. In 2003, however, the Knesset passed a law freezing, in most cases, the family unification process for Jerusalem permanent residents. Over the past 15 years, this order has effectively denied Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who are permanent residents of Israel, the possibility of living in East Jerusalem with spouses from the West Bank or Gaza, and denied their children born in Gaza or the West Bank permanent residency status in Jerusalem. Christian leaders stated that this measure has forced many East Jerusalem Christians and Muslims to relocate to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside Israel’s security barrier, the West Bank, or emigrate. Palestinians not leaving East Jerusalem due to this policy or for other reasons risked losing their permanent residency and the attendant social welfare benefits.

While under Israeli law the ILA could not lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show that they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Palestinian Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens of Israel to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of East Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have been able to acquire property built on ILA-owned land.

Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the security barrier, particularly south of Jerusalem in the West Bank, impeded their work. Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries, as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship. Christian leaders continued to state the 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 government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense, and that it has been highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.

Bethlehem-based Christian leaders stated construction of the security barrier also impacted the Christian community residing in the area by inhibiting economic growth and limiting employment-related movement. In addition, Bethlehem residents asserted that political instability affected tourism, Bethlehem’s key economic sector. During the year, Bethlehem had the highest unemployment rate among West Bank cities, which sources stated was a factor compelling many young Christians to emigrate.

On September 25, representatives of Palestinian Christian churches raised concerns before the Human Rights Council in Geneva over the impact of the security barrier on the Christian community of Beit Jala, according to media reports. The security barrier runs through the Cremisan Valley on land owned by 58 Christian Palestinian families, close to a monastery and its sister convent and school. The construction of the barrier has restricted farmers’ access to their lands.

Nonrecognized churches, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Christian groups, face a continued ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions 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 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 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 location.

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.

The PA Ministry of Waqf (Islamic religious endowments) and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and 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.

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.

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 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, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus – a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims which is located near Balata refugee camp. Some Jewish religious leaders said this policy prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several Jewish religious sites in the West Bank, including 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 requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were needed to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety. On June 25, Israeli security forces arrested 20 Israelis for attempting to enter Joseph’s Tomb illegally, without prior coordination with Israeli authorities. The suspects were released on bail. On October 11, clashes erupted when the ISF escorted a group of approximately 1,000 worshippers to Joseph’s Tomb.

According to local Palestinian political leaders and 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 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 Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).

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 Islamic 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 spaces. Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Muslim call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, saying it disturbed Jewish settlers in the surrounding areas or posed a security concern. The Israeli government criticized the designation by UNESCO in July of the old city of Hebron, including the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, as an endangered World Heritage site in Palestinian territory. The Israelis stated that UNESCO’s approval of a Palestinian motion to recognize Hebron as a heritage site was a deliberate attempt to diminish Jewish and Israeli connections to the site.

Religiously intolerant and anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media. In July PA TV reportedly broadcast a video clip characterizing Jewish Israelis as “evil” and “satans,” and glorified armed resistance. Following the December 6 United States government declaration on Jerusalem, an official PA television program featured a poem that contained anti-Semitic language. Another video program broadcast on PA TV in December featured children stating that Jewish people poisoned the late Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat.

Civil society organizations alleged problematic content in Palestinian textbooks, including inappropriately militaristic and adversarial examples directed against Israel as well as the absence of Judaism alongside Christianity and Islam when discussing religion.

Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating known instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests where possible. In June the GOI indicted Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, a rabbi in a West Bank settlement, for incitement to violence against Palestinians. Elitzur is also coauthor of the controversial book, “The King’s Torah,” which attempts to justify in religious terms the killing of non-Jews in certain circumstances. In December an Israeli court sentenced Yitzhar settlement resident Eliraz Fein to five months’ community service for social media posts calling for violent acts against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. The court gave Fein a 10-month suspended prison sentence and a 2,000 shekel ($575) fine for comments she made in an email forum in which Yitzhar residents mulled the legality under Jewish law of attacking, and even killing, IDF soldiers “under certain circumstances.” In general, however, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions. Israeli NGO Yesh Din also reported Palestinian victims generally feared reprisals by perpetrators or their associates. Both of these factors increased Palestinian victims’ reluctance to file official complaints, according to Yesh Din. In response to these reports, the Israeli government stated the special unit it established in 2013 in the West Bank to combat nationalistic crimes continued to face evidentiary challenges. Those challenges included long delays before Palestinians filed complaints, submission of complaints by NGOs rather than plaintiffs, lack of cooperation by witnesses, and challenges in coordinating with the PA. The Israeli government reported this unit opened 142 cases and filed 66 new indictments in 2017.

NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem and the West Bank continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority, an Israeli government entity, exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds of other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites. In March the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled against a petition filed by Emek Shaveh, a Jerusalem-based Israeli archaeological NGO, seeking to nullify the Israel Ministry of Religious Services’ declaration of the Western Wall tunnels as an exclusively Jewish holy site, since excavations also unearthed a Christian chapel, an Islamic school, and Islamic Mamluk-era buildings. The court rejected the petition, but ruled that the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must ensure that those sections of the tunnels significant to Muslims and Christians were properly managed to protect the antiquities and to ensure access and enable worship for members of other religions. Under Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the Minister of Culture, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Religious Affairs. Based on this provision, Emek Shaveh submitted another petition to the High Court of Justice in June requesting a halt to Western Wall tunnels excavations pending the necessary approvals by the ministerial committee. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation continued to promote ongoing archaeological excavations in the vicinity of the Western Wall Plaza, including 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.

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. 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, including delegations from Europe, North America, and South Africa.

Three PA ministries (Finance, Economy and Tourism) were headed by Christians at year’s end.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other militant and terrorist groups were active in Gaza. Hamas remained in de facto political control.

Hamas, PIJ, and other extremist groups disseminated anti-Semitic materials and incited to violence via traditional and social media channels, as well as during rallies and other events. In January thousands of Hamas activists and supporters participated in a protest organized at the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza to rally against Israel and praise the terrorist ramming attack in Jerusalem that killed four IDF soldiers. Speaking at the rally, a Hamas official voiced support “for every jihadi who carries out an attack that puts an end to the acts of the Zionist enemy."

Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.

Christian groups reported Hamas generally tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law. According to media accounts, Hamas continued neither to investigate nor prosecute Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination, including reported anti-Christian bias in private sector hiring and in police investigations of anti-Christian harassment.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

There were incidents of deadly violence that perpetrators said was justified at least partly on religious grounds. 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. Actions included killings, physical and verbal attacks on worshipers and clergy, and vandalism of religious sites. There was also harassment by members of one religious group of another, social pressure to stay within one’s religious group, and anti-Semitic media items.

In June three armed Palestinian assailants arrived at the Old City’s Damascus Gate; one of the assailants fatally stabbed Hadas Malka, a border police officer. On July 21, a Palestinian stabbed and killed three Israeli citizens – a father, son, and daughter – in the West Bank settlement of Halamish. Some of these attackers cited specific religious motivations on social media before perpetrating the attacks. For example, prior to carrying out the attack in Halamish, the assailant commented on Facebook that he would take actions to “defend” the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Israeli authorities arrested the assailant, and demolished his house on August 16.

Palestinians threw stones and Molotov cocktails and committed other acts of violence against Jewish visitors to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. On August 29, the IDF shot and wounded two Palestinians while the soldiers were providing protection to a group of Jewish worshipers visiting the Joseph’s Tomb holy site, Palestinian media reported. The IDF confirmed that during the incident, soldiers “identified an armed suspect and opened fire on him.”

According to multiple media reports, Jewish groups harassed and attacked Muslim and Christian Palestinians. The Jewish Israeli antiassimilation organization Lehava continued to protest social and romantic relationships between Jews and Palestinians, made anti-Christian and anti-Muslim statements, and reportedly assaulted Palestinians in West Jerusalem. The Israeli police remanded Lehava leader Bentzi Gopstein to house arrest October 22, following allegations he made threats against Arabs in romantic relationships with Jewish women. The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court sentenced Gopstein to five days house arrest. Of the 14 other members of the group arrested at the same time for making similar threats, the court extended the house arrest of two by two days, and released the remaining 12, Hebrew-language media reported. According to local human rights groups and media, Israeli authorities rarely prosecuted Jewish attacks against Muslims and Christians successfully, failing to open investigations or closing cases for lack of evidence.

Local Christian clergy said some Jewish Israelis in Jerusalem continued to subject them to nonphysical abuse, including insults and spitting. These incidents often occurred 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.

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, while almost all ultra-Orthodox rabbis and some National Religious Orthodox rabbis continued to discourage Jewish visits. Some small Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple. Political and religious groups in the West Bank and Gaza continued to call on members to “defend” the Al-Aqsa mosque.

According to Palestinian sources, most Christian and Muslim families in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip pressured 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, encountered considerable societal and family opposition. Families sometimes disowned Muslim and Christian women who married outside their faith.

Independent Palestinian media outlets continued to broadcast anti-Semitic programming. Multiple social and traditional media sites glorified attacks against Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.”

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 (property crimes and violent acts by extremist Jewish individuals and groups against Palestinians), as necessary for the defense of Judaism.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and EngagementShare    

During his May visit to Bethlehem, the U.S. President publicly called for “a more peaceful, safe, and far more tolerant world.” Officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem met with Palestinian officials to discuss religious tolerance. These discussions included continued requests to remove religiously intolerant material or language glorifying violence from traditional and social media. During meetings with Palestinian religious authorities, consulate general officials also discussed religious tolerance as well as other issues such as the Muslim religious leaders’ perceptions of detrimental changes to the status quo of religious sites, including concerns about Israeli restrictions on Muslim access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. 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 as well as to Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs. Consulate general officers raised with local authorities the views and concerns expressed by both majority and minority religious groups. In meetings with PA officials, consulate general officers objected to instances of intolerant and anti-Semitic material in PA and Fatah party media and social media as well as inappropriate material in Palestinian textbooks.

During a visit in October, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia met with politicians and local religious and civil society leaders to discuss religious tolerance, anti-Semitism, interfaith relations, and the need for cooperation against religious prejudice. He also met with a broad range of Christian religious, social, and political leaders to discuss key factors driving Palestinian Christian emigration. In addition, the Special Advisor met with local Palestinians to hear their concerns that construction of Israel’s security barrier in the Cremisan Valley impeded access to the Catholic convent and school and agricultural lands near Beit Jala and Bethlehem, as well as with representatives of churches not recognized by the Palestinian Authorities.

The Consul General and consulate general officers met regularly with representatives of a large range of religious groups from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and when possible, the Gaza Strip. This included meetings with the Waqf and Muslim leaders in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank; meetings with Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Reform rabbis, as well as representatives of various Jewish institutions; regular contacts with leaders of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land (an interfaith group promoting communication and respect among religious communities), and 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. Consulate general officers spoke to local Christians concerned 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 concerned about Israeli police restrictions on Muslim access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and on Waqf renovation projects there.