Christmas tree 2019 Gaza by Mahmoud Ajjour, apa
Christmas tree in Gaza, 2019. Photo by Mahmoud Ajjour, apa

Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced yesterday (November 24) that it has reinstated a quota of 500 permits for Christian residents of Gaza to exit the Strip and visit family in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, during the Christmas season. A further quota of 200 permits will be made available for residents wishing to travel abroad via Allenby Bridge Crossing. Palestinian Christians in the West Bank will be eligible to apply for permits to enter Israel subject to a quota of 15,000 permits.

According to sources in the Strip, members of the local Christian community have begun filing applications for travel permits for the Christmas holidays. So far, about 900 applications have been submitted, more than the arbitrary permit quota set by Israel.

Every year, Gisha contacts COGAT to request that it publish its decision on holiday permits for the Easter and Christmas holidays ahead of time. With Christmas fast approaching, we wrote (Hebrew) to COGAT last week with the same request. We also demanded that, unlike previous years, the application criteria allow families that are split between Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank to celebrate the holiday together. Member of Knesset Aida Touma-Suleiman sent a similar request (Hebrew) to COGAT and to the deputy minister of defense.

In Gisha’s letter, Adv. Moria Friedman Sharir wrote: “This year, exiting Gaza to celebrate the holiday at the holy sites and to visit relatives is of particular importance given such visits have been prevented for a long time, even in patently humanitarian cases such as a severe illness, a wedding, or death of a family member.”

There are about 1,000 Christians living in the Gaza Strip today. Twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, COGAT publishes arbitrary quotas for “holiday permits” to be granted by Israel to Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, ostensibly to allow Christian families to mark the occasion together and visit holy sites in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. In reality, sometimes, COGAT does not issue permits at all. Often, some family members receive permits but not others and age restrictions prevent much of the community from even applying for the permits. Nearly every year, the announcement about the permit quotas comes just a few days before the holiday season begins, and in some cases, after it has ended, making it difficult for people to prepare for travel and file applications on time, and impossible for those whose applications are rejected to appeal the decision.

In March 2020, Israel imposed the “coronavirus closure” at Erez Crossing, a further tightening of the “ordinary” closure it has enforced since 2007. On the Easter and Christmas holidays marked since then, no travel permits were issued to Christians.

We recall that Israel imposes a blanket ban on travel by Muslims from Gaza to Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. In the wake of the 2014 war, after years of a banning it altogether, Israel allowed limited travel to Friday prayers at Al Aqsa for Muslim worshippers, subject to quotas and age restrictions. In December 2016, Israel canceled the quota, and for some time after that, allowed only several hundred worshippers to travel from Gaza to Jerusalem for Eid Al Adha and during the month of Ramadan. Since mid-2018, Israel has blocked travel to Jerusalem by Muslim worshippers completely.

When Israel does issue holiday permits for Christians, it frames them not as a fundamental right – to freedom of religion and worship, to family life – but as a gesture of goodwill. In practice, the story of each season’s holiday permits fiasco reveals how movement restrictions are wielded as a means of applying pressure on Palestinians living under occupation and controlling demographics, in the broader framework of the closure, which itself amounts to unlawful collective punishment.