December 30, 1997
Recently, media reports have emerged charging Israel with preventing the free access of Palestinian Moslems to holy sites in Jerusalem, and the free access of Palestinian Christians to holy sites in Bethlehem. While some security restrictions apply to the movement of Palestinians, Israel neither prevents nor obstructs the movement of Palestinians on the basis of their religious beliefs.
While the free movement of Palestinians into Israel, including its capital Jerusalem, may at times be limited, these entry procedures are strictly for security reasons. It is an accepted principle that every sovereign state must control the entry of non-citizens into its territory as a basic element of maintaining its internal security. Israel is no different. It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to protect the security of its citizens from a very real and constant terrorist threat. Therefore, certain regulations apply to the entry of Palestinians into Israel.
Briefly, there are three types of Israeli procedures, which, depending upon the security situation, may affect the movement of Palestinians. The first two involve the entry of Palestinians into Israel and the third affects the movement of Palestinians between different areas of the Palestinian Authority:
A. Ongoing Supervision of Entry into Israel:
Israel does its utmost to permit the free entry of Palestinians from the territories into Israel, with obvious restrictions due to security reasons. Younger Palestinians may enter Israel with no need for a entry permit. However, the entry of adult male Palestinians into Israel is on the basis of an entry permit, which is issued on an individual basis for employment, for members of the clergy, or for humanitarian reasons. This has been the ongoing policy since January 1995, and is the result of re-assessed security needs following the terrorist bombing of a Israeli bus terminal at Beit Lid. The number of Palestinian adult males formally permitted to enter Israel daily is steadily increasing and today stands at about 30,000 workers and 6,500 for various personal, religious, humanitarian and other non-labor related reasons in the Gaza area; 30,000 workers and 14,000 for other reasons in the Judea and Samaria area.
Due to the nature of non-work related permits (humanitarian, medical, religious, etc.) issued on a day-to-day basis, the number of different persons actually entering Israel over the course of time is considerably higher. Morever, it has also been reported that in fact the real number of Palestinians present in Israel for various reasons is considerably in excess of the number holding official, authorized entry permits – possibly as many as an additional 50,000, as some reports indicate.
B. Closure of the Territories:
For security reasons, it sometimes becomes necessary to impose a "closure", and severely restrict the movement of Palestinians into Israel. This has been the case when information is received that indicates that a terrorist attack is imminent, or immediately following a terrorist attack, when the pursuit of the terrorists and the prevention of follow-up attacks is necessary. The last such closure took place following the wave of suicide bombings in Jerusalem during the summer. When such a closure is in place, the entry of Palestinians is closely controlled and entry is permitted, on an individual basis, for humanitarian cases and for the clergy. It should be noted that Arab citizens of Jerusalem are not affected by this closure, and can move freely between Israel and the territories at all times.
C. Internal Closure within the Territories
When security forces are in pursuit of terrorist suspects, or are carrying out anti-terrorist operations, it it imperative that steps be taken to prevent the terrorists’ escape. For this reason, it is sometimes necessary to impose a closure on a limited area within the territories, in order to isolate that area for the duration of the anti-terrorist operation. In such a case, the movement of civilians, whether Palestinians, Israelis or tourists, is limited. This was the case in Bethlehem a few months ago, when operations were being carried out in that area against terrorist cells belonging to the HAMAS and the Popular Front. These cells were directly linked to recent bombings and shootings in Israel, and a bomb-making facility was uncovered in that area. The internal closure of Bethlehem has since been lifted. It must be noted that internal closures are an operational necessity, and not a matter of standing policy. Both the IDF and the Palestinian Police imposed this, and other internal closures, because it is in the interest of both sides to uproot such terrorism.
Christmas – 1997:
Overall, Israel has made serious efforts to address the special needs of the Palestinian Christian community, and recently arranged for the entry into Israel of about 4,000 Palestinians for holiday worship. It has also taken great care to allow the free access of Christian clergy into Israel, even during times of closure.
During the recent Christmas holiday season, there were no closures in the Bethlehem area, and free access was maintained. The only instance in which access into Bethlehem was restricted, was in response to the request of the Palestinian Authority, which asked that the IDF close the main entrance into the city during PA Chairman Yasser Arafat’s arrival, and during the holiday procession.
In summary, and as a matter of policy, it can be stated that while restriction of movement is an unavoidable reality, it is strictly the result of security concerns and has no basis whatsoever in religious discrimination of any kind.