After weeks of uncertainty and contradictory statements from Israel authorities, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced yesterday evening that he has “extended the travel facilitations for the benefit of the Christian population of the Gaza Strip in recognition of the Christmas holiday,” and that “entry permits for Jerusalem and for the region of the West Bank will be issued in accordance with security assessments and without regard to age.”
The decision was announced just three days ahead of Christmas. Yesterday morning, COGAT published an update to its “Status of Authorizations” document (Hebrew), which lists all criteria set by Israel for movement of Palestinians between Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, and abroad; according to the Status, Israel would issue up to 100 permits to exit Gaza for travel abroad by Christian residents of the Gaza Strip aged 45 or over, and would also allow up to 200 Palestinian Christians from Gaza living abroad to visit the Strip over the holidays. The document made no mention of permits for travel from Gaza to east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Hours later, COGAT made the announcement whereby Israel would issue permits for travel to east Jerusalem and the West Bank after all.
Over the past two weeks, Israeli authorities have given multiple contradictory responses to those inquiring about permits for Gaza Christians. On December 11, COGAT announced that there would be no permits issued to Gaza Christians for travel to the West Bank and east Jerusalem this year. In a statement to Reuters, it defended this decision and said that it was based on “security orders.” On December 15, following media coverage and public criticism over Israel’s decision not to allocate permits for travel between Gaza and the West Bank, COGAT announced it would issue 500 permits to Christian residents of Gaza. Hours later, the announcement of the additional 500 permits was removed from COGAT’s website, without explanation. Since then, and up until yesterday, Israeli authorities avoided publishing a final decision on whether Gaza Christians would be allocated permits for travel to the West Bank, or not.
COGAT’s decision to examine permit applications by Palestinian Christians in Gaza for travel to the West Bank and east Jerusalem without imposing an arbitrary quota limiting the number of people who can obtain permits is positive. The fact that the decision comes at the last minute means that those who want to challenge permit refusals will have no time to do so. Additionally, there is still uncertainty about whether family members will be able to travel together, exactly how many of the 950 applicants will be considered or approved and when.
Greater access is welcome, but it’s clear that much uncertainty, heartache and delay could have been avoided had access been granted in the first place. After all, the dates of the holiday are known well in advance.
Given its ongoing control over civilian life in Gaza, Israel has an obligation to protect the fundamental rights of its two million residents, including the right to freedom of movement, family life, and freedom of religious worship. Respecting these rights isn’t a gesture of goodwill, it should be the bare minimum. Israel’s conduct surrounding the publication of permit quotas, the unnecessary limitations it imposes on who can obtain a permit in practice, the last-minute addition of permits, the lack of transparency surrounding who is eligible to receive one – all fall far short of its obligations towards residents of the Strip.