By Jeremy Moodey
March is when we mark the Women’s World Day of Prayer. The title this year was “Let Justice Prevail”, and it is instructive to look back at previous WWDP themes. Strikingly, back in 1934, even before the creation of the State of Israel, the theme for that Day was Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem.
At that time there were serious Arab riots in Palestine in response to the rising tide of Jewish immigration, much of which was inspired by increasing anti-Semitism in Europe. Almost 80 years on, Jerusalem, the so-called “City of Peace”, remains a deeply troubled city. And since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, things have worsened significantly. Which prompted me to pause and wonder: despite our decades of prayers, why has justice not “prevailed” in this holiest of cities?
Also in the last week, there has been an international conference on Jerusalem in Qatar. Addressed by the UN Secretary General, it debated how Israel’s continued occupation of East Jerusalem, and its policy of illegal settlement, house demolitions and forced evictions, were making prospects for a just and lasting peace in the city ever more distant.
The Israeli government responded angrily to the conference, Premier Netanyahu describing as “contemptible” any language that challenged the status of an undivided Jerusalem as “the eternal capital of the Jewish People.”
This is an issue in which we at BibleLands, the Christian development charity which focuses on the Middle East, have more than a passing interest. For over half a century we have owned and operated a school for visually impaired children in occupied East Jerusalem, the Helen Keller Centre. So we have seen at first-hand how over 40 years of occupation and annexation have changed the character of Jerusalem, and in particular its predominantly Arab eastern half. Education is a key issue.
A UN report on East Jerusalem in May 2011 identified a problem of chronic under-investment by the Israelis in the eastern sector, despite it being half-heartedly grafted onto the Israeli education system, with classroom shortages, sub-standard facilities, and many Arab families forced to pay for private schooling because of the inadequacy of state provision.
The report noted that, despite a 1984 Knesset law guaranteeing free government-sponsored pre-school education, there were just two pre-schools in East Jerusalem, compared to 56 in the predominantly Jewish Western half of the city.
At Helen Keller, as with other East Jerusalem schools, there has also been Israeli interference in the curriculum. Textbooks are censored, with references to Palestinian national identity and consciousness removed, and Palestinian children are obliged to learn the Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, and Ben-Gurion’s 1948 declaration of independence, with their references to “the land of Zion” and to the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. For a population under occupation, these are bitter pills to swallow.
As are the increasing number of house demolitions and settlements. The UN has identified that over a third of East Jerusalem’s land has been confiscated for the construction of Israeli settlements, in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention regarding occupied territory.
At the same time, barely 13 per cent of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian construction. The UN estimates that house demolitions, which are now on the increase throughout the occupied territory, have totalled 2,000 in East Jerusalem since 1967.
In February the Israeli authorities announced their intention to demolish 88 Palestinian homes in the suburb of Silwan, to make way for the development of a so-called archaeological park, known as King David’s Garden. If confirmed, the plan would leave over 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The delicate demographic character of East Jerusalem, which currently still has an Arab majority, despite the influx of 200,000 settlers, is being slowly changed beyond recognition. Indeed, if one excludes the 55,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who are on the ‘wrong’ side of the separation barrier, then Israel is not far short of its unstated policy of creating a Jewish majority in occupied (and previously largely Arab) East Jerusalem.
Residency rights are another thorny issue. The UN has noted that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem lack a secure legal residency status, with some 14,000 of them having had their Jerusalem residency revoked by the Israeli authorities since 1967.
Readers of this newspaper will have read about the particular difficulties of the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem in this regard. They have now been diplomatically resolved, but for thousands of other East Jerusalemites there is an uncertain future, and onerous travel restrictions and checkpoints often make it difficult for them to connect with family and friends in the West Bank.
The litany of humanitarian concerns in East Jerusalem is depressingly long. The 2011 UN report ran to 126 pages and also covered issues such as access to healthcare, the absence of a proper planning framework to allow Palestinians to meet what the UN described as “their basic housing and infrastructure needs” and the intolerable burden of checkpoints, only a handful of which Palestinians with permits can actually use (the rest are reserved for settlers).
The Bible challenges us to “loose the chains of injustice” (Isaiah 58:6), and sometimes days of prayer and letters to MPs are not enough, especially when the politicians trot out formulaic replies about a two-state solution which is being rapidly overtaken by events on the ground.
We have to act against injustice, and act now, and where better to start, as we approach Easter, than in the city where the ministry of Our Saviour saw its world-changing climax?
Jeremy Moodey is Chief Executive of BibleLands, the inter-denominational development charity which supports Christian social ministry in the lands of the Bible, including in Israel/Palestine. BibleLands has launched a Lent appeal to help Palestinian families affected by the separation barrier (www.biblelands.org.uk). All facts in this article are sourced from UN documents. The 2011 UN report on East Jerusalem can be found at www.ochaopt.org.