PA: 300 Gazan Christians permitted to enter Jerusalem for Easter as of Tuesday

Israeli security official confirms entry approved to capital and the West Bank; human rights group criticizes ‘small, arbitrary’ permit quota

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Orthodox Christian worshipers at an Easter service at the St. Porphyrios church in Gaza City, April 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Orthodox Christian worshipers at an Easter service at the St. Porphyrios church in Gaza City, April 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

After failing to issue permits to Palestinian Christians in the Gaza Strip to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem on Sunday, Israeli authorities have decided to allow some 300 of them to travel to Jerusalem and the West Bank to mark Orthodox Easter, a high-ranking Palestinian Authority official said on Monday. The permits will allow the Christian Gazans to cross the border starting on Tuesday.

Although many Christian sects marked Easter on Sunday, Orthodox Christian communities observe the holiday on April 28. Many Christians in Gaza belong to the Greek Orthodox community and will mark the holiday on the latter date.

“The Defense Ministry originally did not issue permits, which unfortunately meant Christians from Gaza who wanted to celebrate Easter in Jerusalem on Sunday were not able to do so,” Saleh al-Ziq, a senior Gaza-based official in the PA Civil Affairs Commission, told The Times of Israel in a phone call.

“But following our intervention, it has now issued 300 permits for those wishing to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank and celebrate Orthodox Easter early next week,” Ziq said.

An Israeli security official who requested anonymity confirmed that the permits would be issued.

The official said Israeli authorities will allow Gaza Christians with permits to exit the coastal enclave through the Erez crossing, the sole pedestrian passageway across the border.

Ziq also said that Israel agreed to allow Gaza Christians below the age of 16, who were not issued permits to enter Jerusalem and the West Bank, to do so if a parent or grandparent could accompany them.

Last week, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, announced that it would issue 200 permits for Gaza Christians over the age of 55 to travel 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 East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Palestinians prepare to cross from Israel into the Gaza Strip at the Erez Crossing, September 3, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ziq said he was on his way to give the permits to a Father Mario, a Roman Catholic Church leader in Gaza, who he said would distribute them to Palestinian Christians in the territory.

He also noted the permits allow for Palestinian Christians in Gaza to enter Jerusalem and the West Bank between Tuesday and May 5.

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.

Ziq, however, said that while Israel granted some 300 Palestinian Christians in Gaza permits to enter Jerusalem and the West Bank, it refused to issue them to hundreds of other Palestinian Christians in the coastal enclave.

“While we received about 300 permits, we applied for a little over 1,000,” he said, adding that 175 of the permits Israel approved were for persons above the age of 55.

Israel maintains heavy restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials maintain 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 have issued more than 300 permits for Palestinian Christians in the Strip.

“The number of permits they issued is insufficient, but it is better than none at all,” Jelda said in a phone call. “At least some of us will be able to enjoy and celebrate the holiday there.”

Mariam Marmur, a spokeswoman for Gisha, an Israeli human rights group that deals with Palestinian freedom of movement issues, echoed Jelda’s comments, lashing out at Israel’s decision to grant 300 permits.

“Israel has an obligation to respect the rights of Gaza residents, including to freedom of movement and religion,” she said in a text message. “There is no justification for the small, arbitrary quota of 300 permits, or for the last minute announcement.”

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