Israel will grant permits to Christian Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank during Christmas “in accordance with security assessments,” the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, said on Sunday.
The announcement came some ten days after a COGAT spokeswoman told Reuters that Christian Palestinians from the coastal enclave would not be permitted to go to Jerusalem and the West Bank for the holiday.
COGAT’s initial statement to the news agency was blasted by Christian Palestinian leaders as well as Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that monitors the movement of people into and out of Gaza.
“Other people around the world are allowed to travel to Bethlehem. We think Gaza’s Christians should have that right, too,” Wadie Abu Nassar, an adviser to local church leaders, told Reuters at the time.
Following the backlash, COGAT posted on its website in Hebrew and English last Sunday that it would make a maximum of 500 permits available to Christian Palestinians from Gaza to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank “in accordance with security checks.” Hours later, however, it removed the posts from its website and its spokeswoman claimed they were mistakenly uploaded.
COGAT said this Sunday that it ultimately arrived at the decision to give permits to Christian Palestinians from the Strip to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank following consultations “with all the security services.”
“Entry permits for Jerusalem and for the Judea and Samaria area will be issued in accordance with security assessments and without regard to age,” the Defense Ministry body said in a statement, referring to the West Bank’s biblical names.
Saleh al-Ziq, a senior Gaza-based official in the PA Civil Affairs Commission, told The Times of Israel that thus far 55 Christian Palestinians in Gaza, all of whom are elderly, have received permits to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank.
He said some 850 other permit applicants were still “undergoing security checks.”
According to a February 2018 report issued by the PA Central Bureau of Statistics, 1,138 Christian Palestinians live in Gaza. Almost all of them live in Gaza City and many of them have family members in the West Bank.
While most are members of the Greek Orthodox Church, which will celebrate Christmas on January 7, 2020, some belong to churches that will mark the holiday on December 25.
A number of sites revered by Christians are located in Jerusalem and the West Bank, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where they hold Jesus was born.
Israel maintains heavy restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israeli officials say that the limitations on movement prevent terror groups from transferring weapons into the coastal enclave.
Elias al-Jelda, a Christian activist in Gaza, said he thought Israel should issue permits to Christian Palestinians to go to Jerusalem and the West Bank well in advance of the holiday.
“Everyone should be able to celebrate the holiday in Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” he said in a phone call. “All people should also be given sufficient time to make plans. Next year, Israel should start reviewing permit applications for the holidays several months ahead of time.”
Miriam Marmur, a spokeswoman for Gisha, criticized Israel for the multiple statements it has issued regarding the permits.
“The responses Israeli authorities have given to the Christian community over the past weeks have flip-flopped wildly, contradicting themselves on more than one occasion,” she said.
“Any addition of permits is a welcome step, one that Israel should have made possible to begin with rather than putting Gaza residents through uncertainty and senseless delay,” she added. “Israel’s conduct surrounding the publication of permit quotas, the unnecessary limitations it imposes on who can obtain a permit in practice, the last-minute addition of permits, the lack of transparency surrounding who is eligible to receive one — all fall far short of its obligations toward residents of the Strip.”