It is Easter in Jerusalem. Newspaper pictures show scenes of Christians from all over the world celebrating and commemorating this holy occasion, with processions, special services and prayers.
While most come freely with passports and tourist visas, the indigenous Christian population, many of them coming from towns and villages within a few kilometers of the Old City, require special permits to visit their holy sites. The majority of these Christians do not receive the necessary permits and so are prevented from participating in the Easter celebrations of Jerusalem.
This year witnessed a particularly heated debate over the question of permits for Palestinian Christians wanting to worship in Jerusalem during Easter. Just days ago, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the US, made the grand claim that 20,000 permits had been issued this year and stated, “The army and security services have created a situation where virtually any Christian in the West Bank can visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter.” The situation as described by Palestinian Christians is quite different.
Israel will continue to vary the numbers of permits issued at every holy occasion at whim, and Palestinians will continue to say what they see: that the vast majority of our people have not been able to reach their holy places in Occupied East Jerusalem. The disagreement over numbers will undoubtedly continue.
But with its continuation, what is often overlooked is that this debate fundamentally misses the point. We should not be questioning how many permits Israel, the occupying power, does or does not issue to Christians or Muslims for their religious holidays: we should be questioning the very existence of such permits at all.
Since 1967, Israel has illegally occupied what is internationally known as the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Occupied East Jerusalem. This is not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact according to international law. Repeated UN Security Council Resolutions (including 242, 252 and 476) have called on Israel to withdraw its forces from territories occupied in 1967, and regard any actions taken to change the character and status of Jerusalem as invalid.
These actions include both the physical, and illegal, annexation of the city to the State of Israel and the maintenance of a significant Jewish majority, through such measures as the construction of the illegal Wall, the revocation of residency rights, demolition of houses and denial of building permits for Palestinians Jerusalemites, in flagrant disregard of international law.
The fact of the matter is that Occupied East Jerusalem remains the socio-economic, cultural and spiritual heart of Palestine: there can be no viable, independent State of Palestine without it. It is an illegally occupied area and the capital of the Palestinian State. Therefore, the very idea that any Palestinian should need a permit to visit the city at any time of year, for any reason, is simply absurd.
If we entertain this absurdity, we might as well ask the State of Israel how many permits it issues to its Jewish citizens during the celebration of Passover. The answer? Not a single one. Jews from all over the world do not require permits to visit Jerusalem. And neither should Palestinians, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Nevertheless, the focus of the argument continues to be about numbers of permits. The reason is that as long as Israel persists in its illegal occupation of East Jerusalem and the rest of the Palestinian Territory occupied in 1967, the Palestinians have little choice but to accept the permit system. In the meantime, the international community firmly maintains that Israel must end its occupation and accept that it has no right to obstruct Palestinian access to any part of their occupied homeland.
Unfortunately, to date, no real international action has been taken to prevent this flagrant Israeli violation of Palestinian freedom of worship as well as the deliberate distortion of the cultural and demographic character of this Palestinian city. Israeli policies relating to Occupied East Jerusalem and the imposition of the permit regime are destroying the social fabric of Palestinian life in addition to its historical integrity and economic viability.
Israel attempts to defend its claims of granting freedom of worship in Jerusalem through pictures of foreign Christians, who are incidentally also significant contributors to the Israeli economy, touring the Old City, while Palestinian Christians are slowly being evicted from the core of their spiritual identity.
This weekend, for example, while Israeli security will be setting up barriers to prevent Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine from reaching their prayers in the occupied Old City of Jerusalem, they will be providing facilities for all Jews to reach the Wailing Wall for Pesach prayers.
This reflects Israel’s policy of exclusion and control, a policy of turning Occupied East Jerusalem into part of the “eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people.” In other words, the permit regime is just one aspect of Israel’s strategy to erase the Palestinian Christian and Muslim identity of Occupied East Jerusalem. And the international community, as called on by the 2012 EU Heads of Missions Report on Occupied East Jerusalem, should act, and act soon.
Until this happens, ordinary Christian and Muslim Palestinians who want to worship at their holy sites in Jerusalem will continue to apply for permits. They will continue to endure this denial of their basic human rights to worship freely, and more essentially, to move freely, within their own land. Crossing from Bethlehem or Ramallah to Occupied East Jerusalem is not crossing an international border but a humiliating checkpoint dividing Palestinians from Palestinians within the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
What Palestinians need is not a selective permits regime from the occupying power, that illegally besieges Jerusalem, but the freedom and independence to exercise their right to access East Jerusalem, their capital, throughout the year. In short, we need independence.
Hanan Ashrawi is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and head of the PLO Department of Culture and Information.