Violent clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Israel, Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank began in September following altercations between Jewish activists and Muslim activists worshipping at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site. The number of fatalities on both sides of the Green Line reached a total of 127 Palestinians and 22 Israelis between October first and the end of December, and an additional 20 Palestinian fatalities in Gaza. Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize much of this violence as being solely based on religious identity. The INP clashed on several occasions with groups of young Muslim worshippers at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound. The government cited security concerns in imposing temporary restrictions on access to the site by Muslims, particularly during Jewish holidays, which Muslim officials protested. Some Knesset members and government officials called for reversing the policy of banning non-Muslim prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly repeated his support for the status quo arrangement whereby Muslims worship at the site and non-Muslims visit at appointed times. The government allowed persons of all religions to access the Western Wall, but with the strict separation of women and men. The government implemented policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law; in July it reversed its previous decision to allow a wider spectrum of Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions. The government did not permit civil marriages, interfaith marriages, or marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis or nonrecognized religious authorities. The government arrested tens of persons – in one instance, 21 persons in one short period – and detained others or placed them under house arrest in connection with “price tag” attacks (violence against individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions previously taken against the group committing the violence).
Following altercations between Jewish activists and Muslim activists worshipping at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, there were violent clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian citizens in Israel, Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank from October through the end of the year. The number of fatalities on both sides of the Green Line (the demarcation line set in the 1949 Armistice Agreements) reached a total of 127 Palestinians and 22 Israelis between the beginning of October and the end of December, and an additional 20 Palestinian fatalities in Gaza.
On July 26, the INP clashed violently with a group of 20-30 young Muslim worshippers who had stayed overnight at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound in contravention of the site’s regulations and confronted Jewish visitors to the site the next morning, which was the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av. Police made several arrests.
On several other occasions the INP entered the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site in response to Muslim youth protesters, who according to the INP and media reports, threw rocks, fireworks, and what appeared to be Molotov cocktails at the police. In most cases the INP closed the door to the Al-Aqsa Mosque to keep protesters inside and to prevent them from throwing projectiles from inside the mosque. The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, the Jordanian-funded Islamic trust and charitable organization which continued to administer the site, claimed on at least one occasion INP officers entered the mosque itself – in full combat gear– to disarm protesters.
In October the government placed a travel ban on NIM leader Sheikh Raed Salah, his deputy Kamal Khatib, and senior NIM official Yousef Awawdeh, preventing them from leaving the country through January 2016, after accusing them of inciting violence against Israel. On November 17, the government declared the NIM an “illegal organization,” accusing it of undermining the state and inciting violence. Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi and other Arab Israeli politicians stated, however, the decision was motivated more by politics than other considerations. Security services subsequently raided the offices of 13 nonprofit organizations affiliated with the NIM and seized money and property, while bank accounts suspected of being used by these organizations were frozen. As of the end of the year, one person had been arrested specifically due to suspected ties to the NIM.
Following the entrance of ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties into the government coalition in May, the cabinet reversed its November 2014 decision to allow a wider spectrum of Orthodox rabbis to perform conversions, leaving 33 rabbis in four centralized conversion courts as the only individuals allowed to perform legal conversions.
A group of Modern Orthodox rabbis established a private conversion court primarily for children of Russian immigrants whose mothers were not Jewish and therefore whose Judaism was not recognized by the state or the Rabbinic Courts. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize these Modern Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews.
The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) continued to sponsor Orthodox Jewish conversion courses for Jewish soldiers who were not recognized as Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinical authorities.
The applications for official recognition of five religious communities – the Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran Churches, Evangelical Alliance of Israel, and Jehovah’s Witnesses – remained pending with the government, as some of them had been for over five years.
Many mosques continued to lack an MOI-appointed imam; the government continued to permit nonstate employees to be imams in mosques if the community preferred.
Pursuant to a 2013 High Court ruling, the government paid the salaries of 12 non-Orthodox rabbis serving local councils (as opposed to cities). In addition, the Ministry of Housing assisted in providing funding for buildings of non-Orthodox Jewish religious institutions, according to the Israel Religious Action Center.
The government continued to control access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslim worship and prayer at the site, and limiting access for visits by non-Muslim groups to specific times.
The INP continued to be responsible for security at the entrances of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, with police stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. The INP conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and regulated traffic in and out of the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza. They reportedly could object to the presence of particular persons, such as individuals dressed immodestly or causing disturbances, but they lacked the authority to remove persons from the site.
The government cited security concerns in imposing temporary blanket age restrictions on access by Muslims to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif at various times during the year, particularly during the Jewish holidays in September and October. These restrictions barred entry of male Muslims under the age of 50 to the site during the four-to-five hour non-Muslim visiting period at the site Sunday through Thursday. The government also restricted access for Muslim women, especially following altercations between women affiliated with the Murabitat organization of the Islamic Movement and Jewish visitors. According to media reports, the government provided Muslims from Gaza occasional access to the site, including permitting entry to 500 Muslim Gazans during Eid al-Adha on September 23, and allowing between 100 and 200 Muslim Gazans travel to visit the site on Fridays beginning in Ramadan.
Muslim officials, including representatives of the Waqf and representatives of the Joint List, an alliance of all the country’s Arab-majority political parties, continued to object to the government’s access restrictions on Muslim worshippers at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and repeated previous years’ complaints over what they said were police violations of the status quo agreements regarding control of access to the site.
The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque and prohibited individuals from wearing non-Muslim religious symbols on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
The INP continued to screen non-Muslims for religious paraphernalia, and generally prohibited them from praying publicly on the site. The police continued to have exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance – the only entrance through which non-Muslims could enter the site – and generally allowed visitors through the gate during set visiting hours, although the INP sometimes restricted this access due to security concerns.
Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated rules against non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures including members of Knesset whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions.
The government halted construction and excavations in the immediate vicinity of the Mughrabi Gate of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif following concerns from the Islamic Waqf and Jordanian government the activities could lead to further destabilizing religious tension at the site.
Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, a view the ultra-Orthodox community supported. Increasing numbers of the “national religious” community, a self-identified religious Zionist group, took an opposing view and found meaning in setting foot on the site. Some government coalition Knesset members called for reversing the policy of banning non-Muslim prayer at the site. On July 26, the fast day of Tisha B’Av, and on September 17, the Jewish New Year, Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, drawing criticism from others in his coalition. Members of Knesset Miri Regev and Oren Hazan made statements supporting Jewish prayer at the site, as did Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. NGOs, such as the Temple Institute and Temple Mount Faithful, continued to call on the government to implement a time-sharing plan at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to set aside certain hours for Jewish worship, similar to the practice at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Press reports on a lower court ruling in March on the possibility of Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site were followed by news and social media speculation such prayer would be permitted, but the police stated they would continue to abide by the previous ruling of the Supreme Court permitting the government to restrict such worship to maintain the public order.
Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his support for the status quo arrangement at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, saying the policy remained: “It is Muslims who pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and non-Muslims who visit.” He reaffirmed the government’s respect for the role of Jordan and the Jordanian king in administering the site, stated his government had no intention of dividing the site, and welcomed increased INP-Waqf coordination, including the installation of cameras to monitor the site, which would be coordinated with Jordan at the professional level.
In October the prime minister announced a ban on visits to the site by all members of Knesset, including Muslims. Joint List members of Knesset (MKs), most of them Arab Muslims or Arab Christians, condemned their inclusion in the ban. Jewish MKs including Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel, called the ban “unnatural” and “unfair.”
In October Joint List MKs also staged protests in the Old City and at the entrance to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif over INP-imposed age restrictions on all Muslims.
The government continued to permit people of all faiths to make individual prayers at the Western Wall, the place of worship nearest the holiest site in Judaism. The rabbi of the Western Wall continued to set the guidelines for religious observance mandating the strict separation of women and men, which the government continued to enforce. The authorities continued not to permit women to bring a Torah scroll onto the plaza, and prevented women from accessing the public Torah scrolls at the site. The authorities did permit women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions. The police continued to assist Women of the Wall, an NGO and prayer group, to enter the women’s area of the Western Wall for its monthly service.
The authorities continued to allow use of a platform south of the Mughrabi ramp (an area called Robinson’s Arch) and adjacent to but not touching the Western Wall for religious rituals. The authorities designated the platform, which was built by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism as well as Women of the Wall. Non-Orthodox mixed gender groups also continued to use it for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. This accommodation of the desire for “egalitarian” Jewish prayer (permitting men and women to pray as they wished and together) remained a subject of debate in the Jewish community throughout the year. Ultra-orthodox Jewish leaders continued to oppose mixed-gender prayer spaces at the wall, and activist groups such as Women of the Wall stated the platform accommodation as currently constructed was insufficient to meet their demands to conduct Jewish prayer services – including the use of Torah scrolls – at the traditional Western Wall site.
Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit continued to chair a committee on egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. The government and religious groups continued to meet through the end of the year to discuss plans to construct an egalitarian prayer space at the Robinson’s Arch area of the wall – discussions that began in 2013 between the government and Jewish groups dissatisfied with restrictions placed on prayer. A legal battle over whether administration of this new area could be awarded to Elad (the City of David Foundation), an association dedicated to asserting Jewish presence in the Silwan area abutting the Old City, continued, with the Jerusalem municipality advocating for awarding the area’s administration to Elad, and the government opposing. Reform and Conservative groups had opposed the granting of administrative powers over the site to Elad. An appeal to the Supreme Court was pending at year’s end.
The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority (Area A). Jewish leaders said this restriction prevented Jewish Israelis from routinely visiting several Jewish religious sites, although the IDF occasionally provided security escorts for groups to visit some Jewish religious sites.
Although the law included Saudi Arabia as a “hostile” country, religious authorities, including the head of the country’s sharia court, stated they were not aware of any requirement for a government-issued permit to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj.
A Beit Shemesh court in January ruled in favor of four local Modern Orthodox women who complained the municipality had not complied with a previous ruling to eliminate signs in public places requesting members of the public dress modestly, awarding them damages of 60,000 Israel new shekels (NIS) ($15,280).
Authorities continued to enforce rulings by the High Court declaring the segregation of men and women on public streets and sidewalks in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem to be illegal. The authorities also enforced the High Court’s ruling against the imposition of gender segregation on buses. Communities could voluntarily self-segregate on public transportation, but could not impose this on others; the Supreme Court required that bus companies post signs informing passengers they were free by law to sit in any available seat.
The MRS continued to implement partially a 1996 law, which established the right of any individual to be buried in a civil ceremony. There were 44 cemeteries containing plots for people without religious status, according to the MFA. The MRS listed 21 Jewish cemeteries with plots for civil burial and 19 dedicated cemeteries for persons the government defined as being “of no religion.”
The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service. The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals according to Muslim customs.
According to government figures and Hiddush, a religious freedom NGO, the year’s authorized budget for religious services for the Jewish population, including funding for religious councils, salaries for religious personnel, funding for the development of cemeteries, and funding for the construction of synagogues and ritual baths, was approximately NIS 511 million ($131.1 million). Religious minorities, which constituted slightly more than 20 percent of the population, received approximately NIS 65 million ($16.7 million), which included NIS 3.6 million ($923,000) for development of religious sites and structures. In December the government added additional funds, some of which was rollover from previous years, for both Jewish communities and religious minorities, increasing the totals to NIS 828 million ($212.4 million) for religious services for Jewish communities; and NIS 121million ($31 million) for religious minorities, of which NIS 51.8 million ($13.3 million) was dedicated to development of religious sites and structures. Allocation of a special budget for the restoration of Arab religious sites, including a special budget for maintaining Muslim cemeteries, was pending at year’s end. Some Muslims stated there was insufficient state funding for Muslim affairs, including for building and restoring mosques and cemeteries, although the state provided municipalities with religious development budgets and religious institutions with operational support funds.
Some former mosques, which belonged to the Muslim Waqf until confiscated by the state following the 1948 War of Independence in accordance with the Absentee Property Law, continued to be used as municipal buildings and entertainment facilities. Muslim community leaders reported Beer Sheva’s Muslim population of approximately 10,000 had no mosque in which to pray, and the government would neither allow them to use the Ottoman-era mosque, which was converted to a museum of Islamic culture following a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, nor authorize the construction of another mosque.
The Supreme Court in May overturned a decision by the Ra’anana municipality that would have prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from holding a religious gathering in a municipally-controlled building.
In a separate case, a Netanya court in October rejected an appeal of its 2014 ruling stating a public school was justified in refusing to rent an event hall to Jehovah’s Witnesses because their “conduct” conflicted with the character of the school.
In Petakh Tikva, the Histadrut (national labor union) reversed its year-long practice of renting a public hall to the Jehovah’s Witness community, citing “forbidden missionary work” in its decision to stop renting to them. The issue was pending in court at year’s end.
While the government provided the funds legally required to cover the operating costs of the two school systems affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, the government provided lesser amounts to support other private schools classified as “recognized but not official,” including Christian and other ultra-Orthodox school systems. After successive years of budget cuts for the “recognized but not official” category, which the government said was an effort to encourage schools to become public, some ultra-Orthodox schools in this category chose to challenge this funding level in court; as of the end of the year this case remained pending. The Secretariat of Christian Schools organized a month-long strike at the outset of the 2015-2016 school year and successfully negotiated a one-year return to prior levels of funding for schools in its system. The government and the secretariat appointed a committee to work on a long-term funding solution for these semi-private schools. At year’s end, secretariat officials said they had not yet received any of the funds promised.
Government resources available for religious or heritage studies to Arab and non-Orthodox Jewish public schools remained significantly less than those available to Orthodox Jewish public schools. Public and private Arab schools continued to offer studies in both Islam and Christianity, but state funding for such studies remained proportionately lower than the funding for religious education courses in Jewish schools.
Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools continued not to offer a basic humanities, math, and science curriculum, and a group of formerly ultra-Orthodox students who graduated from these schools sued the state in December for allowing them to graduate without the requisite knowledge to participate in the economy, claiming they were denied basic education and left lagging far behind secular Israelis in topics such as science, math, history, English, and geography. The case was pending at year’s end.
The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. For example, the only in-country Jewish marriages the government recognized were those authorized by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, which refused to perform marriages involving citizens without maternal Jewish lineage, whom the Chief Rabbinate did not consider Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law). The Rabbinate required individuals who did qualify to marry to follow a procedure which included sessions with a rabbi and classes for the bride to learn about her duties and responsibilities under halacha (Jewish law). The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate also had jurisdiction over the procedures for divorces.
Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism also could not marry or divorce in the country or be buried in Jewish cemeteries pursuant to the Chief Rabbinate’s lack of recognition of non-Orthodox converts as Jews.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government’s legal accommodation of non-Jewish communities with regard to marriage, divorce, and personal status issues followed the practice of the Ottoman government and the British Mandate, with some modifications.
The MRS authorized the civil registration of the marriages performed by some nonrecognized religious communities, such as the Evangelical Christian and Karaite communities, whereas in general the only domestic marriages which had legal standing and could be registered were marriages performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Members of other nonrecognized groups could attempt to process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agreed. The government allowed civil registration of marriages held outside the country.
According to NGOs working with women of all religious backgrounds, although women could choose between civil and religious courts to adjudicate personal status matters other than marriage or divorce, societal pressures at times prevented Muslim women from adjudicating personal status issues in civil courts. Media reports indicated the numbers of Muslim women turning to civil courts were on the rise, however. Jewish women often preferred the civil courts because they considered those courts fairer to women.
Although the government continued to exempt Arab, Christian, and Muslim citizens from compulsory military service, the government continued sending letters to Christian citizens encouraging them to volunteer for military service.
The government continued to exempt individual Jehovah’s Witnesses from military service on an annual basis upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with that religious community, although without acknowledgment of their right to conscientious objection.
The government continued to implement a 2007 MOI decision to eliminate “national identification” on official identity cards. Both “national identification” and “religious identification” were now listed only in the central population registry. Birth certificates for children of mixed marriages or nonrecognized marriages continued to omit the names of non-Jewish fathers. A petition to require the government to issue birth certificates listing both parents’ names, even if one was not Jewish, remained pending before the High Court of Justice.
The government continued to allow Christians and individuals who spoke Aramaic to register with their national or ethnic group listed as Aramean instead of Arab. Church leaders said the measure was aimed at dividing the Arab minority. Approximately 200 families reportedly made use of the option to register as Aramean.
The MOI continued to rely on the guidance of the Jewish Agency, an entity that represents world Jewish communities with strong ties to the government, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew. Prospective immigrants faced questioning about their religious beliefs to determine their qualifications for citizenship. According to the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, an NGO, MOI officials continued to deny citizenship to individuals based on their lack of Jewish status according to Israeli law as upheld by Supreme Court rulings, even if they stated their religious identity as Jewish since they identified as Messianic Jews. On the same basis, members of such groups would be denied or delayed services such as family unification. This included cases of individuals who immigrated under the Law of Return as Jews but were discovered to hold Messianic or Christian beliefs.
The government operated a special department in the state attorney’s office for prosecution of “incitement-related” crimes and a police unit based in Jerusalem for the investigation of such crimes in Israel and the West Bank, including “price tag” attacks.
The government arrested tens of persons in connection with “price tag” attacks and detained others or placed them under house arrest in connection with attacks on Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious sites and civilian sites associated with the Arab population. Although the government declared the price tag movement an illegal association in 2014, it filed formal charges against only a few individuals accused of such attacks. NGOs, religious institutions, and the press stated arrests for “price tag” attacks rarely led to successful prosecutions, mostly for lack of sufficient evidence. During the year, only two indictments were filed against two defendants in price tag attacks against holy sites.
In late July the government announced it had identified five persons, including one minor, as responsible for the June 18 arson attack on the Benedictine Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha in which the perpetrators burned a large section of the church and defaced the walls of the building with comments denigrating Christians. The government filed indictments against two of the individuals, while taking “administrative steps” against the other three. After initially declining to pay for repairs to the church, saying the damage was not covered by the laws governing compensation for acts of terror, the government agreed to pay for restoration of the church.
In July the Jerusalem District Court sentenced brothers Shlomo and Nahman Twito, two members of the Lehava organization, which eschews any interaction between Jews and non-Jews, to two years and two and a half years, respectively, in prison, for setting fire to two first grade classrooms and scrawling graffiti with racist messages, including “Death to Arabs,” at the Arabic-Hebrew bilingual Max Rayne Hand in Hand school in West Jerusalem in 2014. Judicial review of the sentence was pending at year’s end.
Police investigated Lehava leader Bentzi Gopstein for stating in an August panel discussion with religious students in Jerusalem that he condoned attacks on non-Jewish religious sites, including the June 18 burning of the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha. In October the Custody of the Holy Land, the Vatican’s representative body in Israel, requested the Attorney General indict Gopstein on charges of incitement to racism. There was no indictment as of the end of the year.
The Chief Rabbinate in March, reportedly faced with the threat of legal action by Hiddush, issued new regulations on kosher certifications for hotels and hostels, overriding former prohibitions at private events held in hotels against photography, movie screenings, playing music on Saturdays and Jewish religious festivals, and displays of Christian symbols around Christmas and New Year, as well as cancelling the requirement that only non-Jewish receptionists work on Saturdays.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.