A Most Bizarre Punishment: Hindering Freedom of Worship on Christmas

Much ado is often made by the Israeli government that only they can guarantee freedom of worship. They even say Jerusalem would become a closed city if Jerusalem is returned to the Palestians. But that myth has been effectively destroyed, with the recent decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Company to prevent President Yasser Arafat from praying at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. The decision to prevent Arafat from going to Bethlehem for Christmas Mass, a trip Arafat has made every year since 1995, was allegedly punishment for continued resistance against Israel’s occupation.

But even Israel’s own Ha’aretz noted the marked decrease in resistance operations and they questioned what it was that Sharon wants. But there can be no question: Israel was flexing a muscle that was outrageous and uncalled for. Not since the IDF killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durra, who died in his father’s arms before the world, has their been such outrage at Israel.

It is astonishing that preventing a leader from attending a Chrstmas mass somehow aids in Israel’s war against “terror.” The United States and Europe pleaded with Israel to change its decision. but to no avail. In response to Israeli actions, the heads of the Christian churches visited Arafat in the besieged West Bank City of Ramallah. Afterward, the Christian leaders made their way to the place that Jesus was born. At the Cathedral, a Palestinian qaffiyeh, or headdress, was placed on the chair where Arafat was supposed to sit. There was little to be joyful about in Bethlehem this year, still home to a sizable Palestinian Christian community. In fact, Christmas festivities were canceled for the second year in a row due to the Israeli siege and threats of violence.

It should be noted that hindering freedom of worship for Palestinian Christians and Muslims is nothing new. Many have had difficulty or have been unable to attend a Mass or mosque prayer in Jerusalem since Israel occupied the eastern portion of Jerusalem in 1967. Some Jews say that the Hashemite Kingdom prevented them from praying at Haram al Sharif or Temple Mount. This is true though many Jordanian officials would point out that Israel’s prevention of allowing Palestinians to return to their homes had much to do with this. Nonetheless, what Jordan did was inappropriate but Israel has no room to complain about the past nor can they claim to guarantee freedom of worship when hindering such a freedom has been a fact of life for Palestinians for more than 34 years.

I even refer back to my own personal experiences in the Holy Land during a trip in 1995. Many of us had visited during the Easter holiday. Easter is relatively close to the Jewish Passover and Israel generally impose a closure on the Palestinian Occupied Territories during Jewish holidays. What this translates to for foreigners is that you’d better secure a car with with yellow license plates or your ability to travel from the West Bank into areas under Israeli control are impossible. In Israel, citizens and Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories have yellow license plates, and Palestinians have blue or white plates. Yellow plates are the only colored plates that allow unrestricted movement. Non-yellow plates flag Israeli border patrolmen at checkpoints who are renowned for harassment and abuse of Palestinian drivers.

Numerous times, we would be prevented from traveling from Ramallah to Jerusalem [the site of our hotel] unless we could make contact with someone who had a yellow plate. It was the only way we could attend Easter Mass at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It was even more disconcerting that relatives, who actually lived in the Holy Land, were unable to pray unless they had governmental permission or had access to cars with the yellow plates.

Throughout the last 15 months of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli Occupation, Palestinians have been prevented from seeking emergency medical care, have had their homes bombed by F16 fighter jets, have had their land confiscated, and have not been able to attend universities. Assassinations of Palestinian leaders is accepted and encouraged by the Israeli government, the torture of prisoners continues, and people are imprisoned in their homes. All of these actions are done in the name of Israeli security. That Israelis have not felt any more secure is lost on the Israeli government. The key to ending resistance to Israeli Occupation is for the Israelis to end the Occupation itself. Not hindering the freedom of worship.

Sherri Muzher is a Palestinian-American activist, lawyer, and freelance journalist.

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