Gaza City, Gaza – As tourists from across the globe arrive in Bethlehem and Jerusalem for the Christmas holiday, hundreds of members of the Palestinian Christian community in the besieged Gaza Strip were anxiously awaiting news on whether they would be granted permits to travel to the holy cities.
Israel on Sunday said it would allow Palestinian Christians in Gaza to visit Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank “in accordance with security assessments and without regard to age”, reversing an earlier decision not to issue them permits.
Late on Monday, Israel had issued 193 permits to travel, according to Kamel Ayyad, public relations director of the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza. A total of 950 applications were submitted earlier this month, he added. About 1,050 Christians reside in Gaza, where 1.9 million people live under a blockade imposed by Egypt and Israel since 2007.
The days on stand-by and the late reversal have not been easy for many Christians in Gaza, who have been anxiously waiting to know if they will be able to reunite with family members who reside in the West Bank this Christmas.
“People’s entire plans have to be changed last minute. They’d have to cancel celebrations in Gaza, buy gifts and clothes, pack their luggage and borrow money for the trip, all in few hours,” Elias al-Jildah, a board member of Gaza’s Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), told Al Jazeera.
Although they are geographically separated by Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are considered a single territorial unit under the Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s. But since 2007, after Hamas seized control of the territory a year after unexpectedly winning Palestinian elections, Israel and Egypt have blockaded the coastal territory, imposing severe movement restrictions on the enclave’s residents.
“For 12 years, Israel has imposed a generalised ban on travel for the people of Gaza, caging in two million Palestinians living in the 11-by-40km strip of land and limiting travel to ‘exceptional humanitarian cases’,” said Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director of Human Rights Watch.
“Israel, in coordination with Egypt, has turned Gaza into an open-air prison,” he said.
Gaza’s Christians who plan to travel to the West Bank for Christmas or Easter have to apply to Israel in advance to obtain a temporary single-use travel permit from Israel’s Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), but the process is not straightforward.
Ayyad told Al Jazeera that Israel first began accepting applications on December 11, but COGAT said on December 12 that Gaza Christians would be allowed to travel abroad but none would be permitted to go to Israel or the West Bank.
“We were shocked to learn that Israel won’t issue permits for Gazan Christians to visit the West Bank this year,” said.
He explained that later on the same day, COGAT announced there would be a quota of 500 permits to be issued to members of Gaza’s Christian community, but that this statement was quickly reversed.
Ayyad and al-Jildah remained cautious about COGAT’s most recent announcement and stressed that the phrase “security assessments” could be used as a pretext to arbitrarily deny permits. COGAT did not immediately say how many permits had been issued.
“I would have loved to pray at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem with my family and visited my sister-in-law and cousins in the West Bank,” al-Jildah, a 53-year-old father of three told Al Jazeera. “But I haven’t gotten a permit since 2015. Israel never responds back to us to let us know if we’re banned or not or what are the reasons for denying us permits. So, our only option is to wait until the next holiday, apply again and see what happens.”
“We should all be granted travel permits. Why is Israel playing politics with our rights to free movement and religion?” he added. “Israel’s permit system is entirely arbitrary and random; in my family, sometimes only one small child who would get a permit without the parents or the other way around, so it ends up that nobody travels.”
Father Ibrahim Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said the restrictions were “unacceptable”.
“Access to holy sites should be free, it shouldn’t require a security permit to worship God,” he told Al Jazeera.
Despite the seemingly likely inability of many of Gaza’s Christians to celebrate Christmas in the West Bank this year, Ayyad said the Orthodox church has attempted to mark Christmas in Gaza.
“We got used to holding alternative traditions and rituals in Gaza on Christmas given that this isn’t the first time Israel bars us from the West Bank. The occupation, after all, won’t succeed to bar us from finding happiness in the darkest situations,” al-Jildah said.