West Bank and Gaza
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total Palestinian population at 2.8 million in the West Bank and 1.9 million in the Gaza Strip (midyear 2019 estimates). According to the U.S. government and other sources, Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims, with small Shia and Ahmadi Muslim communities. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reports an estimated 427,000 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to various estimates, 50,000 Christian Palestinians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports and religious communities, there are at most 1,000 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, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Maronites, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, other Protestant denominations, including evangelical Christians, and small numbers of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christians are concentrated primarily in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus; smaller communities exist elsewhere. Approximately 360 Samaritans (practitioners of Samaritanism, which is related to but distinct from Judaism) reside in the West Bank, primarily in the Nablus area.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Media reported the PA released in January an individual holding an Israeli residency card that Palestinian courts had found guilty of “seizing/tearing away part of the Palestinian Territories to a foreign State” – participating in a land sale in Jerusalem to Israelis – and who had been sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. Palestinian authorities arrested the defendant in 2018 for his involvement in the sale of a property in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter owned by Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini, the representative of a Muslim family historically entrusted with safeguarding the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
On July 10, Israeli authorities arrested four individuals suspected of planning to plant an explosive device at Joseph’s Tomb prior to the arrival of 1,200 Jewish worshippers. On July 29, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) neutralized a pipe bomb planted near Joseph’s Tomb and responded to rioters when attacked with stones and burning tires, reportedly resulting in injuries to 13 Palestinians.
Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating other instances of religiously motivated attacks and making arrests. 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. The 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.
On April 25, a clash occurred in the majority Christian West Bank town of Jifna, near Ramallah, between town residents and armed persons media reported were affiliated with a faction of the Fatah political party. Some of the armed individuals demanded the Christians pay jizya, a historical Muslim poll tax, the Begin-Sadat Center reported.
The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against what it described as “Israeli extremists’ attacks” on Palestinians and made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through task forces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members. During the first six months of the year, in the West Bank, Israeli police investigated 31 allegations of what the MOJ described as involving “ideologically-based” offenses by Israelis, 21 of which involved “nationalistic-based” and public order offenses against Palestinians and others (e.g., the police or IDF) and 87 such allegations involving Palestinian offenses. This compared to 100 cases opened against Israelis during 2018, of which 68 were allegations of nationalistic-based offenses. By July Israeli authorities issued two indictments in these cases, including from prior years’ investigations. Offenses against property constituted 16 of these cases. Israeli authorities investigated four cases of Israelis allegedly physically assaulting Palestinians.
According to local human rights groups and media, Israeli authorities rarely prosecuted Jewish suspects in attacks against Muslims and Christians, failing to open investigations or closing cases for lack of evidence. The Israeli government stated it had made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, which led to a decrease in ideologically based offenses and an increase in the numbers of investigations and rates of prosecution.
Attacks by Israeli citizens, some of whom asserted their right to settle in what they stated is the historic Jewish homeland in the West Bank, continued, as well as Palestinian attacks on settlers. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported 816 attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2019, and140 Palestinians injured. In 2018, UNOCHA reported 712 attacks, and 195 Palestinians injured. In 2019 UNOCHA reported 175 attacks by Palestinians against Israelis in the West Bank, with 34 Israeli injuries. In 2018, UNOCHA reported 397 attacks by Palestinians and 47 Israelis injured. In November Nadav Argaman, head of the Israel Security Agency, said that in 2019 the agency had prevented more than 450 “significant terrorist attacks.” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said terrorism in the West Bank in 2019 continued a multiyear trend of declining in number of incidents and causalities, due to efforts of Israeli security forces, security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and a disinterest by the general Palestinian population in the West Bank to “take a significant part in terrorism and protest activities against Israel.”
In 2018, Aysha al-Rabi, a Palestinian resident of Bidya Village, died when an unidentified individual threw a two-kilogram (4.4 pound) stone through her car windshield. Israeli authorities announced in January they had arrested five suspected perpetrators, yeshiva students from the nearby settlement of Rehelim. Authorities arraigned one of those arrested in May on a charge of manslaughter; at year’s end, he remained under house arrest awaiting trial. The other four were conditionally released in January due to a lack of evidence. At year’s end, the case remained under investigation.
PA President Abbas granted legal recognition on October 30 to the Council of Local Evangelical Churches, a coalition of evangelical churches operating in the West Bank and Gaza. The presidential decree authorized the council to issue civil documents for members such as birth and marriage certificates. The decree also allowed the churches to have legal rights, open financial accounts, and possess property rights. It permits members of the churches to address family matters, such as divorce and child custody, in the Christian religious court system most affiliated with them.
The PA continued to provide imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and to prohibit them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.
The PA recognized Easter as a public holiday for government employees, after a public outcry in 2018 when it was only given as a holiday to Christian public servants.
Unrecognized religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a continued PA ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered. Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by unrecognized churches. The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these unrecognized churches, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples. Many unrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad to register the action officially in that location. Some converts to unrecognized Christian faiths had recognized churches with which they were previously affiliated perform their marriages and divorces. Members of some faith communities and faith-based organizations stated they viewed their need to do so as conflicting with their religious beliefs. During the year, Palestinian authorities established a procedure for registering future marriages involving Jehovah’s Witnesses that would also enable couples to register their children and protect the children’s inheritance rights.
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 begun by Israel during the Second Intifada (2000-2005) impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in West Bank Christian communities around Bethlehem. 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 Sepulchre 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 was highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks in Israel.
Christian expatriate workers in Israeli settlements complained that lack of public transportation on Saturdays prevented them from participating in religious activities and worship in Jerusalem.
Bethlehem residents said political instability affected tourism, Bethlehem’s key economic sector. Christians also criticized the PA for failing to better protect their communities and way of life, which was under pressure from lack of economic opportunities and other drivers of emigration. 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. Community leaders estimated Bethlehem and surrounding communities were only 12 percent Christian, compared with more than 70 percent in 1950, and 23 percent in 1998.
President Abbas said on Palestinian media on March 24, “We want to achieve our right and our state peacefully…We will not choose a path other than negotiations to achieve our right.” According to Palestinian media, however, based on a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Abbas said on August 10 while visiting a refugee camp, “Jerusalem is ours whether they like it or not…We shall enter Jerusalem – millions of fighters! We shall enter it! All of us, the entire Palestinian people, the entire Arab nation, the Islamic nation, and the Christian nation…They shall all enter Jerusalem…We shall remain, and nobody can remove us from our homeland. If they want, they themselves can leave. Those who are foreign to this land have no right to it. So we say to them: Every stone you [used] to build on our land and every house you have built on our land is bound to be destroyed, Allah willing…No matter how many houses and how many settlements they declare that they [plan to build] here and there – they shall all be destroyed, Allah willing.”
Palestinian leaders, media and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with security forces. Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, and terrorist organizations glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.” On April 27, Omar Yunis allegedly attempted to carry out a stabbing attack on an IDF unit, whereupon Israeli soldiers shot and killed him. Fatah published on its official Facebook page a poster of Yunis referring to him as a “martyr.” Several local Fatah chapters on social media referred to individuals who had engaged in terrorist attacks as “martyrs” and posted memorials, including photographs of suicide bombers. The Fatah branch in the city of Salfit in March praised Omar Abu Laila – suspected of carrying out a terrorist attack in which two Israelis were killed – following his killing by Israeli security forces, and referred to him as a “martyr.” The Fatah Bethlehem Chapter in January commemorated the 1979 “martyrdom” of Ali Hassan Salameh, who was connected with the attack against the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics among other violent attacks.
The PA and the PLO continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed during terrorist acts, as well as stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism. Such payments and separate stipends were initiated by the PLO in 1965 and have continued under the PA since the signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel. PA President Abbas reiterated support would continue for the families of the prisoners and “martyrs.” In accordance with the July 2018 Israeli Deduction Law – which states that Israel must deduct that portion of the revenues it collects for the PA equal to the expenditures by the PA in the previous year for payments to families of people killed, injured, or imprisoned for attacks on Israel – Israel withheld the monthly sum equal to what the PA paid to them (approximately 41.8 million shekels –$12.1 million) from its monthly clearance transfers to the PA. The PA subsequently in March refused to accept any of the remaining approximately 496 million shekels ($144 million) in tax revenues from Israel, which altogether represented approximately 65 percent of the PA’s budget. As the PA’s fiscal situation worsened, Israel and the PA eventually reached an agreement on October 5 for the PA to accept most of the taxes Israel collected on the PA’s behalf. In December Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced that the Israeli government would begin withholding an additional 149 million shekels ($43.1 million) annually from PA revenues for payments to families of Palestinians who were wounded or died while committing terrorist acts or in connection with terrorism. The PA stated that these payments were social payments for families who lost their primary breadwinner. The Israeli government stated that the payments incentivized, encouraged, and rewarded terrorism, with higher monthly payments for lengthier prison sentences tied to more severe crimes.
The PA Ministry of Waqf 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.
Israeli officials demolished a mosque under construction near Hebron in area C September 2 for lacking an Israeli building permit, according to UNOCHA and media reports. UNOCHA estimated the mosque would have served approximately 300 community members.
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, due to the threat of tensions and violence between Palestinian protestors and the visitors. The Kohlet Policy Forum, an Israeli NGO, assessed that the obligation to provide free access to Jewish religious sites in PA-administered areas of the West Bank lay entirely with the PA under Oslo II and that the PA had failed to fulfill that obligation.
An Israeli NGO reported in August that Israeli authorities and settlers prohibited access by Palestinians to several mosques in the West Bank located within Israeli settlements. Israeli authorities declared all legal settlements as restricted Israeli military zones. Palestinians were unable to visit them without Israeli government approval.
The government continued to discourage 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), with large road signs warning Israelis against entering these areas and stating it was dangerous for Israelis and against Israeli law to do so. Some Israelis chose to privately visit Area A, without repercussions. 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 under Palestinian control, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Some Jewish religious leaders said this policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several 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 permitted through IDF coordination. IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety. Palestinian and Israeli security forces coordinated some visits by Jewish groups to PA-controlled areas within the West Bank, which generally took place at night to limit the chance of confrontations with Palestinians who opposed the visit.
Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C, remained separated from the West Bank by the security barrier built during the Second Intifada, and Palestinians could only access it if Israeli authorities permitted them to cross the barrier. Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access. Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays, for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat). In June and October unknown individuals threw explosive devices at the shrine from the West Bank.
The IDF continued occasionally 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. Palestinian leaders continued in statements to local media to oppose the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo-era agreements that gave Israel and the PA shared administrative responsibility for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for it. Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site. The IDF again restricted Muslim access during the 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays, and Jewish access during the 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays. The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point, manned by soldiers and metal detectors, while granting Jews access via several entry points that lacked security screening. Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site, and since 2001 has permanently closed Shuhada Street, the former main Hebron market and one of the main streets leading to the holy site, to Palestinian-owned vehicles. The government said the closure was done to prevent confrontations. Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously in separate spaces, a physical separation that was instituted by the IDF following a 1994 attack by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians. Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron in response to requests of Jewish worshippers at the site.
In his September UNGA remarks, President Abbas said “We… reaffirm our condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and sources.” However, he concluded, “We salute our honorable martyrs, courageous prisoners, and wounded heroes, and salute their resilient families, whom we will not [abandon].” He also said Israel is “[attempting] to violate the sanctity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” and to deny worshipers access to the holy sites. Following an August 15 terrorist attack near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, Israeli authorities briefly closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif while conducting a security search. On August 19, President Abbas’s Advisor on Religious Affairs and Chief Justice of the Sharia Court Mahmoud al-Habbash said the closure was a “declaration of war against Islam and the Muslims,” and he called on Muslims to “religiously defend” the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the PA official news agency WAFA reported.
The PA’s Palestinian Broadcasting Company’s code of conduct states it does not allow programming that encourages “violence against any person or institution on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, or sex.” Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling political movement Fatah, however, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews. Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media. On October 7, a host on the program The Cause in the Egyptian Halls broadcast on PA TV, summarized a commentator’s remarks by saying that Israeli authorities were creating “a forgery of history” in respect to Jewish history in Jerusalem. On October 6, a guest speaker on another program on PA television, Palestine This Morning, said the children of Israel [Jewish people] were historically never present in the “land of Palestine.” On July 7, official Palestinian television aired a speech by Jordanian Ibrahim Badran describing Israel as “a barbaric, racist state that has outdone what Hitler did.” In March, the PA official daily newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida published an opinion piece which made anti-Semitic remarks regarding prominent U.S. Jewish officials, according to the National Council of Young Israel. On February 10, on social media, Fatah Central Committee Secretary Jibril Rajoub protested a conference on peace and security in the Middle East by describing the meeting as part of “a plan to carry out a ‘holocaust’ against this [Palestinian] cause.” Media reported that Fatah preemptively restricted access to its official Facebook page in September so it could only be viewed by those expressly invited due to concerns that the site would be shut down because of its content.
Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region. On July 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on social media, “The Palestinians’ connection to the Land of Israel is nothing compared to the 4,000-year connection the Jewish people have with the land.” On August 26, official PA television broadcast an interview with the PA minister of culture in which he said the State of Israel “came out of nowhere, without a history and without geography.”
Anti-Semitic, militaristic, and other adversarial content continued to be directed against Israel in Palestinian textbooks, while references to Judaism were absent in the context of discussions of other religious, according to Palestinian Media Watch and the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se). The European Union announced in March that it would conduct a review of new Palestinian school textbooks following a study that found them to be more radical than in the past and containing incitement and rejection of peace with Israel. IMPACT-se reported in September that PA schoolbooks for the 2019-2020 school year contained material glorifying terror and promoting violence, with a “systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom, and jihad across all grades and subjects.” The Jerusalem-based Center for Near East Policy Research reported in August that PA teacher guides published in 2016-18 delegitimize Jews’ presence, and demonize Jews as “aggressive, barbarous, full of hate, and bent on extermination,” and “enemies of Islam since its early days.”
Both the European Union and Norwegian parliaments called for funding restrictions to the Palestinian Ministry of Education if incitement and anti-Semitism were not removed from Palestinian textbooks. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released a report in August that expressed concern for the first time about “hate speech in certain media outlets, especially those controlled by Hamas, social media, public officials’ statements, and school curricula and textbooks, which fuels hatred and may incite violence, particularly hate speech against Israelis, which at times also fuels anti-Semitism.”
Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the ministers of culture, justice, and religious affairs. The government stated the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), a government entity, conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds, and the IAA was obligated by law to document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations. It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk and Ottoman periods.” Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in the West Bank continued to state the IAA exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims, while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds involving other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites. In July an Israeli court ruled that administration of the Tel Shiloh site could remain under the control of the Benjamin district council, with involvement of the Israeli Civil Administration in the site’s management, instead of direct administration by Israeli authorities. Israeli NGOs Emek Sheveh and Yesh Din had filed the case, arguing that the site under the administration of the district council focused on its Jewish heritage and did not give sufficient weight to its Christian and Islamic history. Tel Shiloh is identified with the site of ancient Jewish worship before the construction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The ruins of a Byzantine Church are also located there, and sources stated that it also has significance for some Messianic beliefs in Christianity, as well as some Islamic attachment.
The Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in the West Bank, regulations Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy and other religious workers from entering and working. The government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank to single-entry visas, which local parish leaders 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 in receiving visas and reported periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated visa delays or denials were due to security processing, and visitors from states without diplomatic relations with Israeli could face delays. Officials from multiple churches expressed concerns that non-Arab visa applicants and visa-renewal applicants also faced long delays. While Christian clergy generally were able to obtain visas, Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy adversely affected schoolteachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank. Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank. Christian leaders said Israel issued insufficient permits to meet the full demand, and the process was lengthy and time consuming.
According to some church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority, from entering Gaza. Israel facilitated visits by clergy, including bishops from non-Arab countries, to Gaza on multiple occasions.
At year’s end, Christians held minister-level positions in three PA ministries (Finance and Health, plus Tourism, traditionally occupied by a Christian) and the cabinet-level office of deputy prime minister for public information.