Official: Israel to grant Gaza Christians permits to visit Jerusalem for Easter

Even if travel documents are issued it is unclear whether they will be able to make it to Holy City by Sunday, though many could travel later in the month for Orthodox Easter

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Orthodox Christian worshippers hold candles during the Easter Eve service at the St. Porphyrios church in Gaza City, Saturday, April 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Orthodox Christian worshippers hold candles during the Easter Eve service at the St. Porphyrios church in Gaza City, Saturday, April 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Israel has decided to approve hundreds of permits for Palestinian Christians living in the Gaza Strip to visit East Jerusalem and the West Bank for Easter, an Israeli official said on Friday, two days before the holiday.

“Following the recommendations of the security establishment, during this coming Easter, hundreds of Christians from the Gaza Strip will be allowed to visit Judea and Samaria and East Jerusalem and to go abroad,” the Israeli official, who requested anonymity, said in a text message to reporters, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

It was unclear whether Palestinian Christians in Gaza wishing to arrive in East Jerusalem and the West Bank before Sunday would be able to do so. A number of sites revered by Christians are located in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Most Christians will celebrate Easter, a holiday marking Jesus’s resurrection, on Sunday, but Orthodox Christian communities, who follow a different calendar, will mark it on April 28. Many Christians in Gaza belong to the Greek Orthodox community, which will celebrate the holiday on the latter date.

Travel requests have been filed for both dates.

The comments came as thousands of Christian pilgrims and clergy members marched through the ancient stone alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City, retracing Jesus’s path to crucifixion in observance of Good Friday.

A Catholic pilgrim carries a wooden cross along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City during the Good Friday procession on April 19, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

Asked specifically how many permits Israeli authorities would issue for Palestinian Christians in Gaza to visit East Jerusalem and the West Bank and whether Israel would  arrange for them to exit the coastal enclave before the holiday, the Israeli official did not respond.

A Palestinian Authority official in charge of requesting permits from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with Palestinians, said he had not been informed of the Israeli decision.

“All I know about is 200 permits to travel abroad,” the official, who asked to remain nameless, said in a phone call. “I have not been informed of anything else.”

Earlier this week, COGAT announced that it would issue 200 permits for Palestinian Christians in the coastal enclave over the age of 55 to travel abroad through the Israeli-controlled Allenby border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan for Easter, but made no mention about whether it would allow Christians in the Strip to visit the East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Roman Catholic clergy pray during the Easter Sunday procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)

Asked on Friday if Israeli authorities would now open the Erez crossing, the sole pedestrian passageway between Israel and Gaza, to allow Palestinian Christians in the Strip to travel to East Jerusalem and West Bank by Sunday, COGAT did not respond.

COGAT announced on Thursday that it would be closing all crossings between Israel and Gaza starting early Friday morning for a week for the Passover holiday. However, the Defense Ministry body said it would allow “humanitarian, medical and exceptional cases” to pass through.

Israel maintains heavy restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials hold that the limitations on movement aim to prevent terror groups from transferring weapons into the coastal enclave.

According to a February 2018 report issued by the Palestinian Authority Central Bureau of Statistics, 1,138 Palestinian Christians live in Gaza. Almost all of them live in Gaza City and many of them have family members in the West Bank.

Elias al-Jalda, a Christian activist in Gaza, said Israel should inform Palestinians in Gaza whether they have permits to travel to the West Bank or East Jerusalem several days before the holiday.

“People here need a few days to prepare to travel. Israel should make sure it lets us know well in advance of the holiday whether we have permits to go to Jerusalem, the West Bank or elsewhere. When Easter happens is known; so it should not be complicated to prepare the permits ahead of time,” Jalda said in a phone call.

He said even if Israel immediately issues the permits, they unlikely will manage to prepare themselves to go in time. However, Jalda said Orthodox Christians should have sufficient time if informed soon.

Agencies contributed to this report

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