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Israel and The Occupied Territories

Executive Summary


A report on the Occupied Territories, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA), is appended at the end of this report.

The Basic Law describes the country as a Jewish state and protects the freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation. Violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Israel, Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank continued. During the year seven Israelis, one U.S. citizen, and five Palestinian attackers were killed in terror attacks inside the Green Line, and another 62 Israelis were wounded. Israeli police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious paraphernalia before they enter the site of the Temple Mount (which is the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples) and the Haram al-Sharif (containing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), and the Jordanian administrators continued to restrict non-Muslim visitors from entering the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. Citing security concerns, Israeli police at times restricted broad Muslim access at the site. Some Knesset members and government officials called for reversing the policy of banning non-Muslim prayer and the government’s ban on Knesset members at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly repeated his support for both bans. The government continued to permit non-Jews, including Muslims and Christians, to pray at the Western Wall, but continued to enforce a prohibition on non-Orthodox (including mixed gender) Jewish prayer services. The government and non-Orthodox activists reached a compromise in January to accommodate “egalitarian prayer,” i.e., Reform and Conservative Jewish services, near the Western Wall, but the government did not implement it. The government implemented policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. For example, following a February decision by the Supreme Court ordering public mikvah ritual baths be opened up to non-Orthodox conversion rites, the Knesset passed a law in July bypassing the court ruling and potentially preventing Reform and Conservative Jews from using these facilities for conversions by leaving the decision up to local rabbinates. A ruling by the Supreme Court on March 31 expanded immigration rights under the Law of Return to those who complete private (not sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate) Orthodox conversions in the country. The government continued to recognize marriages of Jews performed in-country only when performed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, which is an Orthodox institution.

Relations among religious and ethnic groups, including between Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, and secular and religious Jews, continued to be strained. Early in the year, an Arab citizen entered a bar in Tel Aviv and killed two Jewish citizens while injuring several others, then during his escape killed a taxi driver who was an Arab citizen. He was subsequently killed in a shootout with security authorities. On March 8, a Palestinian killed a U.S. citizen and stabbed Israelis and was subsequently killed by security forces. On the same day, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, after he himself was attacked, used the knife of his Palestinian attacker to kill the attacker. On February 4, two 14-year-old girls, Arab citizens of Israel, attacked a security guard in Ramle with knives. The guard suffered slight injuries to his hands and legs. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year. A February 2015 incident involving Jewish assailants beating a Druze Israel Defense Forces (IDF) veteran was brought to court in September but dismissed due to “lack of evidence.” Civil society and religious leaders worked to encourage tolerance and calm.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers spoke with government officials and Knesset leaders about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and not escalating tensions through provocative actions or statements. In meetings with government officials, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Visiting high-level U.S. officials, including the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officers participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, and Christian groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.

Israel and The Occupied Territories – The Occupied Territories

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.

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