The Trump Annexation Plan: What Does It Mean for Easter Celebrations and the Status of Jerusalem and its Holy Sites?
The Trump Annexation Plan: What Does It Mean for Easter Celebrations and the Status of Jerusalem and its Holy Sites?
The Old City of Jerusalem remains the center of the Easter celebrations, where the sites the Christian tradition refer to as the places of crucifixion and burial of Jesus are located. For centuries, Palestinians have celebrated Easter alongside thousands of pilgrims.
Since the beginning of Israel’s occupation in 1967, Easter traditions have continuously been undermined, and on several occasions disrupted, by the various illegal Israeli policies. Documented cases include arrests and prevention of the faithful from reaching their holy sites within the occupied Palestinian territory, and beatings of religious and laity people.
Easter this year is celebrated amidst the threat of COVID-19 outbreak, but also following President Trump’s announcement of an annexation plan that aims at normalizing the Israeli control over several areas of Palestine, including all of East Jerusalem, in violation of international law, United Nations Resolutions, and the internationally agreed-upon parameters for the Middle East peace process. This media brief provides an overview of what this annexation plan means for the future of Palestine, the Holy City, and the status of the holy sites.
Israel’s Annexation of Occupied East Jerusalem
Since its occupation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, the occupying power has pursued several illegal policies towards the annexation of the city and altering its character and identity. This includes Israel’s unilateral expansion of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, the dissolution of the Arab Palestinian municipality, the imposition of Israeli laws, land expropriations, construction of illegal colonial-settlements, forcible transfer and home demolitions, and the displacement of thousands of Jerusalemites whose residency rights in the city were revoked.
All those policies, illegal under international law, have been condemned by the international community, including through UNSC Resolution 478 that “determines that all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith”.
The Status Quo of the Holy Sites and the Occupying Power’s Obligations
The Status Quo of the holy sites is one of the most important agreements reached in Palestine. Achieved under the Ottoman Period, the agreement defines the status of key religious sites in Palestine and protects their identity, including the Churches of the Holy Sepulcher and the Nativity Church, and Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, identified as such by the British Mandate, by the UN Partition Plan of 1947, as well as by the 1949 Palestine Conciliation Commission formed by the United Nations that details the locations of several protected religious buildings. The core of the Status Quo Agreement was codified by international treaties; the Treaty of Paris of 1856, and the Treaty of Berlin of 1878.
The Status Quo Agreement is a unique legal system detailing the rights and obligations of every authority that controls Jerusalem. This legal system, which has been created over centuries of practice, is considered binding under international law and supersedes any and all aspects of domestic law. The agreement has been respected since the Ottoman Period in Palestine and has only been challenged under the Israeli occupation. Israel’s attempts to alter the status quo are not permitted under the law of occupation and as well the general principles governing international humanitarian law. Article 43 of the 1907 Hague Convention clearly states that the occupying power is required to respect the laws unless absolutely prevented by military necessity.
The Trump Plan and the Holy Sites of Jerusalem
On 28 January 2020, the U.S. Administration released a document that they referred to as a “Vision for Peace”, which endorses all Israeli positions and narratives towards normalizing the Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem. This document incorporates: (i) a recognition of all of Jerusalem, including occupied East Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel, (ii) a redefinition of the city’s boundaries in accordance to Israel’s illegal annexation wall, and (iii) a change to the status quo in Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound.
Any review of the U.S. plan will conclude that this document does not meet any of the minimum requirements for peace per international law. The rights, concerns, and aspirations of the people of Palestine were completely not taken into consideration. The plan strongly supports a hardcore Israeli-Zionist narrative, which is underlined in its propositions regarding the holy sites.
In reference to Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, the plan proclaims that: “People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.” Such an account opens the door wide open for the most extreme segments of the Israeli society to carry on with their campaigns aimed at dividing the Mosque.
Israeli attempts at changing the status quo of Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound have been opposed by the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, as this represents a threat to the status quo of Christian holy sites as well. In 2014 a statement signed by the 13 heads of churches in Jerusalem underlined that “the existing agreed Status Quo governing these sites needs to be fully respected for the sake of the whole community. Any threats to its continuity and integrity could easily lead to unpredictable consequences which would be most unwelcome in the present delicate political climate.” And in response to the announcement of the U.S. Plan, the Heads of Churches recalled in another statement their “vision for the Holy City to be open and shared by the two peoples, Palestinians and Israelis, and for the three monotheistic religions and our confirmation to uphold the Hashemite custodianship over the Holy Sites.”
Also, the plan largely ignored the countries that have served as guarantors of the holy sites and the rights of the Christian denominations in the holy city, including notably France, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Greece, and the significance of their role that constitutes another important aspect of the Status Quo Agreement. For example, the plan does not consider that there are sites under French sovereignty, including Saint Anne’s Church in the Old City of Jerusalem.
What Does the Trump Plan Mean for Palestinian Christians?
The plan utterly disdains the history, culture, rights, and the very existence of all the Palestinian people, Muslims and Christians, in their own homeland. Regarding religion, the plan includes one primary reference allowing Muslim pilgrimages, only after a Palestinian and Arab acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, to be bussed to their holy site and back through the use of “touristic facilities” to be built outside the city (Qalandia). This highlights the denial and rejection of the authors of this plan of the very identity of the Palestinian people that take a national pride, not only religious, in all of their holy sites across Palestine, including in occupied East Jerusalem.
As damaging as the U.S. Plan is for the Palestinian people as a whole, it as well poses a threat to the churches in and around Jerusalem and their parishes in particular. The plan represents a consolidation of the current reality, including by advocating for:
- Maintaining Israel’s separation of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
- Maintaining Israel’s illegal annexation wall that splits convents, monasteries, and communities in the Mount of Olives.
- Israel’s annexation of the remaining areas available for the future expansion of Palestinian Christian communities, such as the Western Bethlehem area.
- Israel’s racist policies and laws that discriminate against Jerusalem’s non-Jewish residents towards pushing more Palestinians outside the city. In addition to Israel’s ‘center of life’ policy that threatens Jerusalemites with ID revocations, Israel’s zoning and planning policies in occupied East Jerusalem lead them to suffer lack of housing. Israel makes it extremely hard for Jerusalemites to obtain building permits for residential construction, and those who build without one are threatened with yet another Israeli policy: home demolitions.
In Focus: The Trump Plan Normalizes Israel’s Occupation and Illegal Policies
(1) Israeli Violations of the Status Quo and the Access to Holy Sites
The Israeli occupation continues to pose a threat to the Status Quo Agreement, particularly with regards to the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound. With the support of members of the Israeli government, extreme Israeli organizations have been leading dangerous and audacious campaigns attempting to alter the status of this holy site, which will tremendously impact the whole Status Quo Agreement.
For years, various Christian denominations have been careful in maintaining not only the order inside Churches but also the access to the holy sites. When Israel built the Annexation Wall in Bethlehem, the Holy See and various Christian denominations asked the occupying power to at least respect the historic route between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The Annexation Wall left a system of gates to be used on special occasions, including mainly around Christmas. The first time that this was tested was in 2004, when the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem at the time, Msgr. Michel Sabbah, was asked to go through the “new route” on his way back from Bethlehem following the Midnight Mass due to a “technical” problem in the gate. Understanding the implications this would bring to the whole concept of the status quo, Church officials informed the Israeli side that they would wait in the car until the gate was fixed. He waited until it was reopened.
(2) Israeli Restrictions on Easter Celebrations
Fr. Nicola Shahin, 67 years-old has been the Parish priest of Ein Arik since 1984. Ein Arik, a village outside Ramallah, is located about 22 km from Jerusalem. On his relationship with Jerusalem, Fr. Shahin explains the significance of Jerusalem to every Christian that “it is the place where Jesus Christ lived, preached, was crucified and resurrected. It is the heart of our beating heart. It is the blood that flows in our veins.”
Before Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Palestinian Christians from all over Palestine were gathering in Jerusalem to celebrate Easter without any restrictions. Fr. Shahin recalls how tens of thousands of Palestinian Christians used to gather at the church of the Holy Sepulcher on Holy Saturday to receive the holy fire from the Patriarch: “There were no checkpoints and no need for permits to enter Jerusalem. The most joyous day was when we receive the flame from the Patriarch to bring it to our village, where Christians and Muslims alike would be waiting for us to dance Dabke (Palestine’s native folk dance) while holding the candles and marching towards the church. Those were the days before the occupation: we were happy and had peace of mind.”
Fr. Shahin still dreams of celebrating Easter in Jerusalem, which he could not visit since 2004 as he was repeatedly denied a permit: “The occupation has turned our lives upside down. With the erection of dozens of military checkpoints to separate us from Jerusalem, our spiritual capital, and the imposition of a permit regime, it became impossible to exercise our religious traditions and heritage. It is too painful. It hurts to see Christians coming from the whole world to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem while we, the indigenous Christians, are denied our legitimate right to move in our homeland freely.”
Fr. Shahin emphasizes that the Israeli restrictions aim at pushing more Christians out of Palestine stressing that he keeps urging his congregation to remain steadfast and not to leave: “I urge our people not to leave the land of our ancestors, to cling to their identity and traditions, to be patient and have a solid faith that the dawn of freedom and independence is coming.”
(3) Israel’s Threat of Annexation on Al-Makhrour Valley
With Israel’s unilateral expansion of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries, the annexation of the northern areas of Bethlehem had become a reality since 1980. With the construction of the illegal annexation wall, Israel has been using this land to expand a network of illegal colonial-settlements towards consolidating its apartheid reality that mainly deprives Bethlehem of its hinterland for natural growth and hinders the historical connections between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Today, Israel is moving towards the annexation of the remaining area for Bethlehem’s expansion as well as its breadbasket: the western Bethlehem land and its villages. Two of the main areas under threat are the Cremisan Valley, where Israel’s annexation is built in the area of Bir Onah, Al Makhrour Valley, and a part of Battir lands inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014.
Al Makhrour Valley is traditionally known as one of the most agricultural areas in the southern Jerusalem area. It extends over approximately 3,000 dunams (~740 acres) and includes parts of Beit Jala, as well as the villages of Al Khader, Battir, Husan, Nahhalin, Wadi Fukin, and Al-Walajeh. The valley is known for its ancient agricultural terraces dating back to the Roman period, which include the traditional olive groves and vines and fruit orchards with almond and fig trees.
According to the Trump Plan, Al Makhrour Valley, in addition to Cremisan, will be formally annexed by Israel. This comes in addition to decades of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian development in the area and Israeli demolitions of their properties, including homes, which started in December 2011 and continues to date. Furthermore, some Israeli lawmakers have introduced another bill to further expand the boundaries of the Israeli Jerusalem Municipality to areas around occupied East Jerusalem, including western Bethlehem.
Nakhleh is 80-years-old. For the past seventy years, he has been farming his family’s land. He remembers how in 1996 Israel opened a bypass road for settlers (Road 60) confiscating more than half of his property. Currently, Israel is moving ahead with a plan to further expand bypass Road 60, which again threatens his land with further confiscations. Nakhleh explained: “We had owned this land from long before the State of Israel was created. I have personally been in charge of this land from before the occupation. Every time they come up with something, and now if you look around, you see a settlement here, a checkpoint there. Our land has become a reservoir for their destructive plans.”
When Israel built its annexation wall in Bir Onah, at the entrance of the Cremisan valley, Nakhleh lost most of his olive trees: “Those trees were as old as the time of the Romans in Palestine. Centuries-old. What do they want? They are not leaving any options for the next generation but to leave. Is this what they want?” Nakhleh, who comes from a traditional Christian family, was born on Palm Sunday and so he was given this name, Nakhleh means Palm. When asked about celebrating Easter in Jerusalem, he answered: “I haven’t used any of the recent permits I obtained. I don’t want to go through checkpoints. The occupation has changed the whole landscape of our celebrations.”
Moving Forward: Palestine’s Vision of Peace
The Palestinian vision of peace is an endorsement of the internationally agreed-upon parameters calling for the implementation of international law and relevant UN resolutions, including Security Council resolutions 478 and 2334. This includes the full end of the Israeli occupation that began in 1967.
The Arab World has offered Israel full recognition and normalization of relations in exchange for accepting this vision, which calls for two sovereign and democratic states on the 1967 borders, in addition to a just and agreed-upon solution for Palestine’s refugees in accordance to UNGA Resolution 194. We believe it’s possible to have Jerusalem as an open and shared city with East Jerusalem as the sovereign capital of the State of Palestine. The status quo of all holy sites shall always be respected and protected by the historic Status Quo Agreement.