Will Palestinians Protect Freedom of Religion and Holy Places in Jerusalem?
by Mitchell Bard
For the sake of argument, let us assume that the Palestinians one day achieve their goal of securing a capital for a Palestinian state in Jerusalem. What would this likely mean for the residents and visitors to the city?
The hope would be that the city’s holy places would be protected and accessible — and that everyone would enjoy freedom of worship, as they do under Israel’s jurisdiction. But past precedent — as well as more recent Palestinian behavior — is not reassuring.
The part of Jerusalem that the Palestinians demand for their capital was under Arab control from 1948-1967. Jordan occupied the city and the West Bank for 19 years — and, curiously, the Palestinians never demanded an end to the “occupation” or the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. These demands only emerged when Israel — that is Jews — took control over the area. Palestinians have never been able to explain the nearly two-decade gap in their supposed longing for self-determination in the land that they speciously claim has been theirs since time immemorial.
Before advocating a redivision of Jerusalem, proponents should read the history of that period. Israel made western Jerusalem its capital; meanwhile, Jordan occupied the eastern section but did not move its capital there. Jordan violated the 1949 Armistice Agreement by denying Israelis access to the Western Wall and to the Mount of Olives. Worse, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City was razed, 58 synagogues were destroyed or desecrated, and thousands of tombstones in the Mount of Olives cemetery were destroyed to pave a road and build fences and latrines in Jordanian army camps.
Under Jordanian rule, Israeli Muslims were also not permitted to visit their Holy Places in East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, “Israeli Christians were subjected to various restrictions during their seasonal pilgrimages to their holy places,” according to longtime mayor Teddy Kollek. “Only limited numbers were grudgingly permitted to briefly visit the Old City and Bethlehem at Christmas and Easter.”
Jordan also passed laws restricting the opening of new Christian schools, giving Jordan control over the appointment of teachers, and requiring the teaching of the Koran. In 1965, Christian institutions were forbidden to acquire any land or rights in or near Jerusalem. In 1966, Christian schools were compelled to close on Fridays instead of Sundays. Because of these repressive policies, many Christians emigrated from Jerusalem. Their numbers declined from 25,000 in 1949, to fewer than 13,000 in June 1967.
The discriminatory laws adopted by Jordan were abolished by Israel after the city was reunited in 1967.
Would Palestinian policies in Jerusalem be any different than those of the Jordanians? Based on Palestinian words and deeds, there is reason for concern.
Two Palestinian Authority (PA) officials made clear that they believed the Jordanian policy towards the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, should be restored. Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud Al-Habbash, for example, declared that non-Muslims should be barred from praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which, he maintained includes the Western Wall. Similarly, Tayseer Al-Tamimi, former Chief Justice of the PA Religious Court, insisted that “the Al-Aqsa Mosque is Islamic,” and that “Jews have no right to pray in any part of it,” including “its western wall.”
In 1952, Jordan proclaimed Islam to be the country’s official religion. According to the Palestinian draft constitution, Islam will also be the official religion of “Palestine,” which does not augur well for non-Muslims. According to a US State Department report on religious freedom in the PA territories, churches there are not officially recognized and must obtain special permission to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters. Christians may not proselytize.
Jonathan Adelman and Agota Kuperman noted that Yasser Arafat “tried to erase the historic Jesus by depicting him as the first radical Palestinian armed fedayeen (guerrilla).” David Raab observed that “Palestinian Christians are perceived by many Muslims … as a potential fifth column for Israel.”
At the start of the Palestinian War in 2000, Muslim Palestinians attacked Christians in Gaza. Raab reported that “anti-Christian graffiti is not uncommon in Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Sahur, proclaiming: ‘First the Saturday people (the Jews), then the Sunday people (the Christians),’” and that “Christian cemeteries have been defaced, monasteries have had their telephone lines cut, and there have been break-ins at convents.”
In 2002, Palestinian terrorists seized the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and held priests, monks and nuns hostage. The New York Times reported that: “Palestinian gunmen have frequently used the area around the church as a refuge, with the expectation that Israel would try to avoid fighting near the shrine.” More recently, on December 23, 2017, rioters in Bethlehem threw rocks at the car carrying the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86% Christian. After assuming control in 1995, the PA began Islamizing Bethlehem. Arafat appointed a Muslim as governor, and fired the Bethlehem city council that had nine Christians and two Muslims, and replaced it with a 50:50 council. The city’s municipal boundaries were also redrawn to incorporate 30,000 Muslims from three neighboring refugee camps and a few thousand Bedouins. Muslims from Hebron were also encouraged to move to Bethlehem. The net result was that the area’s 23,000 Christians were reduced from a 60% majority in 1990 to a minority by 2001. Today, only 11,000 Christians remain, just 12% of the city’s population.
Across the West Bank, Christians now account for less than 2% of the population. In 2017, Nihad Abu Ghosh, a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the director of the PLO’s diaspora affairs department, admitted one reason for the decline is “an ISIS-like culture, and the existence of an environment that excludes the Palestinian Christians and is unsympathetic towards them.” As an example, he mentioned a preacher at the Al-Aqsa Mosque who “advocates imposing a poll tax (jizya) on Christians.”
When Arafat died in 2004, Vatican Radio correspondent Graziano Motta said, “The death of the president of the Palestinian National Authority has come at a time when the political, administrative and police structures often discriminate against [Christians].” Motta added that Christians “have been continually exposed to pressures by Muslim activists, and have been forced to profess fidelity to the intifada.”
In 2005, Samir Qumsiyeh, a journalist from Beit Sahur told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that Christians were being subjected to rape, kidnapping, extortion and expropriation of land and property. He added that “almost all 140 cases of expropriation of land in the last three years were committed by militant Islamic groups and members of the Palestinian police.” Qumsiyeh warned that, “If the situation continues, [Christians] won’t be here any more in 20 years.”
The world should also be concerned with how the Palestinians would treat holy and historically significant places. The Oslo Interim Agreements specified that the PA would be responsible for the security of certain holy sites, and that Jewish worshipers would be allowed unhindered access to them. The Palestinians, however, have made it difficult for Jewish worshipers to visit holy sites, and allowed mobs to burn the “Peace for Israel” synagogue in Jericho and damage Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. On December 19, 2017, Palestinians rioted, burned tires, threw stones, and threatened soldiers and worshipers when Jews visited Joseph’s Tomb to celebrate Hanukkah.
The Palestinians now controlling the Temple Mount have also caused irreparable damage to archaeological remains from the First and Second Temple periods. Israeli archaeologists found that during construction work ordered by Muslim authorities, thousands of tons of gravel — which contained important relics — were removed from the Mount and discarded in the trash. Experts say that even the artifacts that were not destroyed during this act were rendered archaeologically useless because the Palestinian construction workers mixed finds from diverse periods when they scooped up earth with bulldozers. The nonpartisan Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount said that another Palestinian construction project damaged a wall that dates to Second Temple times.
The consistent violation of agreements that the Palestinians have already signed regarding freedom of religion and the protection of holy places, in addition to the religious persecution and mistreatment of non-Muslims, provide ample practical evidence of why the international community should have grave concerns about giving the Palestinians control over any part of Jerusalem.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is executive director of AICE and author/editor of 24 books including “Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” “The Arab Lobby,” and the novel “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”