Catholic leaders in Israel and the West Bank on Saturday condemned a decision by Israeli authorities to bar Christians in the Gaza Strip from visiting Bethlehem for Christmas.
A spokesperson for Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians said earlier this month Gaza residents will receive permits to travel abroad for Christmas, but for security reasons will be prevented from entering Israel or the West Bank. The army later appeared to backtrack, saying a final decision had yet to be made.
Some 1,000 Christians live in Gaza alongside 2 million Muslims, and their numbers are steadily declining.
In a letter to the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Catholic leaders protested the rejection of the travel permit requests.
“Just as it is permitted for nations from all over the world to enter Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas, it is also the right of Christians from Gaza to celebrate the birth of Jesus the messiah in the place of his birth,” they were quoted saying by the Haaretz daily.
“We call on Israeli authorities to allow, without further delay, Christians from Gaza to go to Bethlehem to celebrate the holiday,” the church leaders added.
Of some 950 requests from Gaza Christians to travel abroad, only 100 have been approved, according to the newspaper, with those granted permission allowed to travel to Jordan via the Allenby border crossing.
“After consultations will all security agencies in Israel, it was decided that this year for Christmas exit permits to [go] abroad through the Allenby crossing will be issued for Gaza Christians,” COGAT said in a response.
“Concerning exit permits to Israel and Judea and Samaria, a final decision on the matter has not been made,” it added, using the biblical names for the West Bank.
Israel restricts entry and exit from Gaza as a means of isolating and weakening its rulers, terror group Hamas, which is avowed to its destruction. Together with Egypt, it maintains a blockade of the territory since Hamas took over it from the Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup in 2007, to prevent it from importing weapons or the means to build them.
Since then, Hamas and Israel have fought three wars, and terror groups in the Strip have fired tens of thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and communities.
Israel has explained past travel bans as being due to Palestinians staying on illegally after receiving short-term permits to leave Gaza.
In previous years, members of the community were allowed to visit their families in Israel and the West Bank and visit Christian holy cities such as Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Last year, 700 permits were issued.
Most of the West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and its Fatah movement, Hamas’s political rival.