Christmas cheer came a bit early for Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories’ (COGAT) announcement of goodwill gestures for Christians during the holiday season. It would appear that Santa has decided that 500 Palestinian Christians from Gaza who are under the age of 16 and over the age of 46 have been nice this year and so deserve a chance to visit family in Israel and the West Bank and participate in religious festivities at holy sites outside the Strip.
It’s a welcome gesture and certainly important that the principles of freedom of movement and freedom of religious worship, as well as goodwill, find expression in COGAT’s actions.
But a closer look at the goodwill gesture suggests that the Grinch – and not just Santa Claus – has been at work. In this year’s stocking for Gaza’s Christians is a rollback of their ability to access holy sites on the holidays, relative to past years: Israel has raised the age of those banned from traveling to 46 years old, rather than 35 years old, and has set a quota of just 500 people being allowed to travel, even though about 600 Christians traveled last year.
Whether they have been naughty or nice, at least two-thirds of Gaza’s approximately 1,500 Christians, including all those between the ages of 16-46 who are excluded from the gesture, won’t be able to celebrate the holiday with their family members who meet the criteria and do squeeze into the quota. That means a family of six, with mom and dad over the ages of 46 but with children aged 20, 16, 14, and 7 will either have to forfeit the chance to travel or the option of spending Christmas together.
Last year at Christmas, and even this past Easter, the criteria stipulated that those over 35 years of age could receive permits. It’s not clear why this Christmas only those over 46 can travel. Israel’s policy is even more restrictive for Muslims in Gaza: Muslims of any age can’t travel to holy sites, a policy approved in the courts earlier this year, so I guess we have to be grateful for small miracles. In any case, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!
Update, 12.22.11: It appears the COGAT has decided to change the criteria again. If you wish to read about the change and the way it was done click here.