Gisha is currently handling numerous cases of Palestinian Christians from the Gaza Strip who contacted us after their applications to Israeli authorities for “Christmas permits” received no response, were denied without explanation, or denied citing “security grounds.” This comes as no surprise. Every year, at Christmas and Easter, Israeli authorities allocate a small and arbitrary quota of “holiday permits” for Palestinian Christians in Gaza, ostensibly in order to allow people to travel to the holy sites and celebrate the holiday with family in Israel and/or the West Bank. Every year, similar issues arise, with permit applicants receiving no response to their applications or being denied permits by Israeli authorities on various grounds.
Israel routinely presents holiday permits as a “goodwill gesture,” ignoring its legal obligation to enable freedom of movement and infringing on other fundamental rights, such as the right to religious worship and the right to family life.
The conduct of the Israeli authorities results in chaos, with some family members receiving permits while others do not, meaning families are either split up during the holidays or have to stay in Gaza so as not to leave behind family members who were refused permits.
As in previous years, Gisha contacted Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) around two months ahead of the holiday, demanding it publish its decision on Christmas permits ahead of the holiday, allowing time to challenge permit refusals. In the letter to COGAT, Gisha lawyer Adv. Moria Friedman Sharir warned that the limited quota of 500 “holiday permits” that Israel typically allocates to Christians from Gaza (a population of about 1,100 in total) is arbitrary, disproportionate and unjustified. Adv. Friedman Sharir emphasized that the authorities were “well acquainted with members of this small community given that twice a year […] at Easter and Christmas, you receive their applications to exit Gaza and travel to the West Bank and Israel, where the Christian holy sites are located, as are, in many cases, family members for whom this is a rare opportunity to meet.” In its response, which only arrived in late November, COGAT asserted that “the quota will stand at 500 permits” this year as well.
According to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza, so far, about 500 of 780 applications for “holiday permits” submitted by Palestinian Christians (over the age of 16) have been approved by Israel. In other words, in this holiday season too, hundreds of Gaza Christians, including children, will not be able to exit Gaza and celebrate with family in the West Bank and Israel.
In their responses to some of Gisha’s inquiries on behalf of people who were denied permits, including for “security grounds”, the Israeli authorities stated that “the applications that were not approved were closed in light of the quota being filled.” This answer reinforces the impression that many applications are arbitrarily refused in order to keep to the narrow quota Israel insists on imposing, while knowing full well that it does not meet the needs of Christians in Gaza.
Last week we submitted four petitions on behalf of Christian Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, whose requests to exit Gaza during the current Christmas period were denied on unspecified “security” grounds. Among the petitioners is a couple who had previously received permits to exit Gaza with their children for celebrations; last Easter we petitioned on behalf of the wife because Israel denied her request but withdrew its refusal due to a petition we submitted. The couple were shocked to discover that both their applications were denied this year. A second petition was filed on behalf of a mother and son; the father’s request to leave Gaza this holiday season was approved, but both the mother and son’s requests were denied. A third petition was filed on behalf of a father and his three daughters; the mother was the only one whose application was accepted. The fourth petition was submitted on behalf of a business administration student, whose requests for holiday permits were approved no less than 10 times in the past, but his requests to leave Gaza during the previous Easter holiday and for this year’s Christmas holiday – were denied. As in the other cases, Israeli authorities responded to our inquiries on his behalf by stating that the permit quota was full.
During the discussion on the four petitions at court, which took place on December 15, the state did not provide any support for the decision to impose security blocks on the petitioners and claimed that “there is no point in examining them given the quota is full anyway”. The judge was content with this position, and the petitions were denied. Arbitrary security blocks continue to tarnish the name of our clients without recourse.