Six women from Gaza appealed to the Supreme Court on Wednesday to be allowed to pray at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. The original petition was denied by the Beersheba District Court last year.
The women, all over the age of 50, claim that Israel is discriminating against them on the basis of their Muslim faith. The petitioners cite Christian women in Gaza, who are allowed access to holy sites within Israel. Gisha, an Israeli NGO that deals with Palestinian freedom of movement and is representing the women, argued that Christian women aged 35 and over are allowed access to Israel based on government-set quotas, whereas Muslim women are categorically denied.
‘If Israel chooses to fulfill its obligations towards Gaza by allowing Christians to pray in Jerusalem, it must also allow Muslims to pray in Jerusalem’
Israel toughened its security stance toward the Gaza Strip following Hamas’s capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006 and its violent takeover of the Strip one year later.
One of the petitioners, 52-year-old Umayma Qishawi, told The Times of Israel that she last visited the Aqsa mosque 35 years ago.
“I am very upset because I would love to visit Jerusalem,” she said. “If we are given a permit, we will go and return the same day. All we want to do is pray, nothing else.”
Qishawi said she had gone on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca three years ago and that it was customary to complete the religious trip with a visit to Jerusalem.
“We are only women, what damage could we do? In any case, we would undergo security checks at the Erez border crossing. This is clearly a government policy and we demand explanations for it.”
The Court, however, seemed unimpressed by the argument.
“The state has the right to control its gates, freedom of religion notwithstanding,” said Justice Miriam Naor, who presided over the three-judge panel. The judges refused to acknowledge Gisha’s argument that the state had an obligation to treat non-citizens equally.
“Where is it written that a state must implement equality outside its borders? Does Israel have an obligation to let in all the citizens of the world?” asked Justice Uzi Fogelman.
But Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, said the Supreme Court had acknowledged Israel’s special humanitarian obligations toward the Gaza Strip back in 2008.
“Gaza is not a country, Gaza is not an enemy state. Gaza is an area which we believe is under occupation. The Court does not believe it is under occupation, but rather is an area where Israel has special obligations,” Bashi told The Times of Israel.
‘We are only women, what damage could we do? In any case, we would undergo security checks at the Erez border crossing. This is clearly a government policy and we demand explanations for it’
“Our claim today was that those obligations cannot allow the state to discriminate based on religious beliefs. If Israel chooses to fulfill its obligations towards Gaza by allowing Christians to pray in Jerusalem, it must also allow Muslims to pray in Jerusalem.”
Attorney Nomi Heger, representing Gisha, argued that the unusually high court fees — NIS 25,000 ($6,400) — imposed on the organization by the District Court are “punitive” and will deter Palestinians from petitioning Israeli courts in the future.
“The imposition of costs raises serious questions about the openness of the Israeli justice system to Palestinian petitioners and to human rights organizations,” Bashi said.
But on Wednesday, Umayma Qishawi remained optimistic that come Ramadan in two weeks, she will be allowed to pray at Al-Aqsa.