Israel will not allow Christians in the Gaza Strip to visit the West Bank or East Jerusalem for Christmas, the military liaison to the Palestinians said Thursday.
For security reasons, permits will be issued for residents of the enclave to travel abroad during the Christian festival, but not to Israel or the West Bank, a spokeswoman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said, according to the Reuters news agency.
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 previous travel bans on Palestinians staying on illegally after receiving short-term permits to leave Gaza.
Some 1,000 Christians live in Gaza alongside 2 million Muslims, and their numbers are steadily declining.
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.
Left-wing Israeli NGO Gisha criticized the ban as “an extreme violation of freedom of movement.”
Christian leaders said they had appealed to Israeli authorities against the decision, condemning the move.
“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, was quoted as saying by Reuters.