Christians in the Gaza Strip Forced to Mark Christmas Under Siege After Israel Blocks Gazans from Traveling to Bethlehem and Jerusalem

Palestinian Christians attend a Christmas tree lighting celebration on December 3, 2019 in Gaza City. / AFP / MAHMUD HAMS

For yet another year, Gaza’s tiny Christian community will be forced to mark Christmas under siege.

Separated from friends and family in the West Bank and barred from visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem’s churches of the Holy Sepulchre and Nativity during one of the most important events in the Christian calendar, and faced with harsh humanitarian conditions year-round, large numbers are departing the enclave for safer and easier lives elsewhere.

Gaza’s Christian minority, just like other Gazans, cannot travel between the geographically separated Palestinian territories without petitioning Israel in advance to obtain a security permit. But the process is hardly ever straightforward.

Major Delays

“Every Easter and Christmas, we have to petition for travel through the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry, who in turn passes our applications to the Israeli side,” Kamel Ayyad, public relations director of Gaza’s Orthodox Church, told The National.

“We then wait for a long time to receive an arbitrary decision of approval or rejection without further explanation.”

Israel’s decision on the petitions is often made at the last moment or even after the celebration is over, says Mr Ayyad.

On November 7, Israeli Human Rights organisation Gisha sent a letter to Israel’s Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories demanding it announce holiday permits well in advance.

COGAT responded that “efforts are being made to make sure the announcement is made ahead of time to enable residents to receive the information and submit applications in time.”

However, Mr Ayyad explained that only last Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority informed Gaza’s Orthodox Church that Israel had opened the door for applications and asked to be sent a list of petitioners who wish to travel out of Gaza at Christmas.

“We reached out to the Christian community in Gaza, of about 1,050 individuals, and 955 of them petitioned to travel to the West Bank and Jerusalem. We submitted the list on December 12. Which is very late already,” he said.

“The whole warmth and spirit of Christmas begins from early December. That’s when we should be reunited with families in the West Bank and visit the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Nativity Church in Bethlehem until Christmas,” Samir Abu Nusira, a Christian resident of Gaza, said.

“What good is it if we’re allowed to visit the West Bank only on Christmas Eve when the month is over?”

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SOURCE: The National, Muhammad Shehada