In a response to a totally nonviolent protest by Palestinian Christians and Muslims demanding their freedom of movement the Israeli army has effectively banned entry of Christian pilgrims and tourists from visiting the birth place of Christ.
The protest on March 28th focused on the Israeli restrictions to Palestinians from Bethlehem from participating in the Palm Sunday events in the holy city of Jerusalem, a mere 8 miles away. For centuries Christians from around the world have reenacted the triumphant entry of Jesus to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives one week before his crucifixion, burial and resurrection.
Protesters marched from the Nativity Church in Bethlehem towards the checkpoint near Rachel’s Tomb. In addition to Palestinians, the protest included members of international solidarity groups as well as a number of Israeli peace activists.
Additionally, and in keeping with the biblical story of the entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, the marchers waving palms and olive branches were led by a man riding a donkey.
When the protesters arrived at the checkpoint they appear to have caught the Israelis totally off guard even though the march that was sponsored by the Palestinian NGO Holy Land Trust was publicized using local media for the past week. The private security company hired to man the checkpoint escaped leaving the protesters the ability to pass through the checkpoint without restrictions. No soldiers appeared to stop them, no one declared the area a military zone and so the protesters which included a senior member of the Fatah movement continued their march. A few hundred meters past the checkpoint and before crossing the now unmarked border point between the occupied territories and Israel, the protesters decided to stop make a few speeches and turn around. By this time the Israeli army seems to have regrouped and began attacking the returning protesters (as well as the donkey and its rider). Eleven protesters including an American woman, and an Israeli as well as Abbas Zaki a member of the Fatah Central Council, were arrested.
The Israelis quickly released the foreign and Israeli participants and held the Palestinians for four days (the maximum amount allowed before having to present them to an Israeli judge. The arrestees are charged with entering a closed military area (although it was not declared as such) entering into Israel without a permit (they had not entered the internationally recognized border of Israel and incitement. Lawyers for the arrested say that the fact that no stones were thrown and the arrests occurred while the protesters were on their way back, weakness the Israeli position legally.
On the ground, however, the Israeli army decided to close the entrance and exits from Bethlehem at the main checkpoint near Rachel’s Tomb. The closure effectively prevented the thousands of international pilgrims and tourists who have come to Israel and Palestine from visiting Bethlehem. Local tourist companies say that in the first day of the closure at least 50 tourists buses were expected in Bethlehem. The closure continued the following day and most expect it to continue until the end of the Passover Holiday.
Israel has in previous years permitted many of Bethlehem’s Christian population from visiting Jerusalem by providing those seeking it permits to the city. The permits distributed through local Churches, obviously, require individuals wishing to get the sought after permits to apply through one of the local churches. Human rights organizations say that this is a discriminatory act. Not only are the permits themselves a clear violation of the right to movement, the idea of giving selective individuals through local churches these permits creates yet another level of discrimination against non church goers. Church officials have noted that this year fewer permits were issued and the period of the permits had been cut from the ‘generous’ one month last year to a mere 15 days this year.
International humanitarian law requires occupying powers to respect the right to worship as well as the right of movement.
The restriction on the exit of Palestinians as well as the restriction of the entry of tourists and pilgrims to Bethlehem is a collective punishment which is a violation of the fourth Geneva convention. The Convention regulates how an occupying power is expected to operate towards the population under its control. Preventing tourists buses from entering Bethlehem is another form of collective punishment aimed at getting local business to press activists not to publicly express their demands for the freedom of movement.