Palestinian Culture

Religion

The majority of Palestinians are Muslim, including those living overseas. All residents in the Palestinian Territories are required to declare a religion on an identification card issued by the Israeli government. According to this record, 98% of Palestinians identify as Sunni Muslims.1 Christianity is the main minority religion, with roughly 52,000 Palestinian Christians believed to be living across the occupied territories as of 2013.2 It is believed the numbers of religiously unaffiliated Palestinians (i.e. atheist or agnostic) in the West Bank and Gaza are very low.

 

There is also a substantial population of Jewish Israeli settlers residing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (see Israeli Settlements under Core Concepts).3 Jewish settlers in the West Bank are generally more religious than those living in Israel, with a higher proportion identifying themselves as ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) (26%) and religious (Dati) (36%).4 For information on the Jewish Israeli population, please visit the Israeli profile.


Islamic History in the Region

Islam was introduced to the region as early as the 7th century, tracing back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Many Palestinians continue to refer to the area of present-day Israel and the currently occupied Palestinian Territories as the “Holy Land”, due to the deep historical ties the land shares with Islamic history. Those who are more religiously conservative may believe that the land of Palestine is part of a sacred Islamic trust reserved for Muslims that cannot be sold or traded without breaking trust with Allah (God).5

 

Jerusalem is a very holy city held sacred to Palestinians, as well as Jews, Muslims and Christians alike across the world. The city is home to two important Islamic sites: the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Both sites, located in close proximity, commemorate the place where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have prayed during his night journey and ascended into heaven (Isra and Miraj). These sites are a popular pilgrimage destination for Muslims worldwide. Ongoing conflict and occupation by Israel has prevented most Palestinians from being able to access such religious sites and cultural heritage. Foreigners generally have much greater and widespread access to Jerusalem than Palestinians – this can be a point of frustration or sorrow.


Islam in the Palestinian Territories

Many Palestinians’ personal, political and legal lives are guided by Sunni Islamic principles in the Palestinian Territories. Dominant legislation around marriage, divorce, child support and inheritance are based on Shari’a law. There is very little religious conversion from Islam or intermarriage between religions. Most Palestinians who are raised Muslim continue to identify with the religion into adulthood.


Religious observance is quite strong in the Palestinian Territories. Many people pray daily, participate in weekly worship and have found ways to continue to practice their religion despite the impacts of conflict. For example, Gazans will come together and share food for Ramadan despite serious food shortages. According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of Muslims in the Palestinian Territories say religion is very important in their lives.6 This figure is higher than that of Palestinian Muslims living in Israel (68%).7 The older generation, those living in rural areas or Gaza are generally more conservative. However, there are differences in observance across society, with those living in Israel, overseas and urban areas of the West Bank tending to be more secular in their practice. Many Palestinian Muslims living in the diaspora may not practice Islam but continue to affiliate with it on a cultural and/or familial basis.


Political Islam

Palestinian society was quite secular prior to the 1960s and ’70s. For example, it was less common for Palestinian women to wear hijabs. The urban Palestinian elite has also been historically opposed to religious fundamentalism, being a force for ideological moderation. However, over the latter half of the 20th century, decreasing hope for independence amongst Palestinians led many to turn towards political Islam as a potential means for stronger leadership against Israeli occupation. As such, the visibility of Islam has been influenced by the rising ideology and changing political eras in the Middle East.

 

Today, Gaza is governed by Hamas, an Islamic militant group and political party. Hamas subscribes to moderate Islamism (belonging to the Brotherhood Movement), meaning it adheres to a more conservative interpretation of Islam than that applied in the West Bank. This has seen women’s freedom of movement, dress codes and cultural activities restricted (or enforced) in cases where Hamas believes they contradict Islamic values. There are also other active Islamic factions and political parties, including some minor Salafist militant groups that practice an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam. Such militants generally focus their actions on fighting a violent campaign against Israel (that they believe to be religiously endorsed by God), rather than focusing on the religious practices of other Gazans.


Christianity in the Palestinian Territories

Many Christians consider the region of historic Palestine to be sacred, along with Muslims and Jews. The cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem feature heavily in the Bible’s account of the life story of Jesus. Approximately 52,000 Palestinian Christians are believed to live across the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as of 2013.8 Most live in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus, with a few residing in Gaza. A significant population also resides in Israel. However, the majority of Palestinian Christians have emigrated from the region since the 1948 conflict. Estimates on the proportion of Palestinians that are Christian worldwide range anywhere between 6% to 15%.9,10 They are most commonly members of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Lutheran and Armenian Orthodox churches (as well as many others).11 

 

Palestinian Christians rarely face social discrimination from other Palestinians on the basis of their religious affiliation. They are generally accepted throughout society, with each group preferring to focus on their shared identity as Palestinians rather than their religious differences. Christian Palestinians are also subjected to the same restrictions on their freedom by Israel as Muslim Palestinians. The Christian community has played an active role in supporting inter-faith dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, advocating for tolerance.12 Christians living in the West Bank do not have to abide by Islamic law relating to marriage, divorce, child support and inheritance, and may apply the laws of their respective Christian ecclesiastic system. The few Christians living in Gaza may keep a lower profile as Hamas implements a more conservative interpretation of Islam that does not allow proselytism of another religion.

 

Inter-religious Interactions and Tensions

The Muslim majority and Christian minority share a history of tolerance and respect. For example, Palestinians may close shops according to one’s individual religion and celebrate religious holidays together. In the city of Bethlehem, some Muslims celebrate Christmas by decorating their houses with trees and lights. In this way, many Palestinians describe themselves as tolerant and accepting of other religions.

 

However, there are obvious tensions between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews. This is most noticeable in Israel and around Israeli settlements of the West Bank where the two populations are more likely to interact. In 2016, 37% of all Muslims surveyed by the Pew Forum in Israel said they had suffered discrimination based on their religious identity in the past year (e.g. questioned by security officials, prevented from travelling or physically threatened or attacked).13 Roughly eight-in-ten Arabs (79%) believed there was significant discrimination against Muslims.14 

 

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was initially dominated by secular nationalist movements. However, in recent decades, leaders of Israel, West Bank and Gaza have moved towards justifying their national aspirations via religious rhetoric.15 As a result, some fundamentally conservative religious groups may frame the conflict as a struggle between Muslims and Jews, believing that their national agenda is endorsed by God.16 


Nevertheless, many Palestinians do not see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be about the incompatibility or coexistence of the two religions. Many say they respect Judaism but oppose Zionism specifically (see Core Concepts of the Israeli profile).17 Therefore, tensions are more commonly expressed in response to the Zionist campaign of establishing, supporting and protecting a Jewish nation-state in the historic region of Palestine. For example, some Palestinians may be sensitive to references to their homeland as the Jewish State of “Israel”.18


Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2019

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017

B’TSELEM, 2017a

Pew Research Center, 2016

Mitchell, 2017

Pew Research Center, 2016

Pew Research Center, 2016

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017

Sawe, 2019

10 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017

11 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017

12 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2019

13 Pew Research Center, 2016

14 Pew Research Center, 2016

15 Perliger, 2019

16 Mitchell, 2017

17 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017

18 Proquest, 2017

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