- With just two days before Christmas Eve, some Palestinian Christians in Gaza have not received a response to their applications for “holiday permits” allocated by Israel. About a month ago, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced that up to 500 permits would be issued to Gaza residents for visiting family and holy sites (see below).
According to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority-run body that relays permit applications by Gaza residents to the Israeli authorities, 486 of 824 applications submitted in total were approved by Israel as of this morning. Despite our request to COGAT (Hebrew) that children be allowed to exit with their parents and not be counted in the 500-permit quota, more than a third of the applications approved were for children under 16 years old. About 338 people who applied for permits were denied or received no response at all. We know of children who received permits while their parents did not, and of couples where one spouse received a permit while the other was denied. As a result, hundreds of families will again be forced to mark the holiday apart from their loved ones.
Gisha knows of cases where permit applicants were denied a permit because a relative of theirs is, according to Israel, staying outside of the Strip “illegally.” These grounds for denying permits arbitrarily punish people for the alleged actions of others, which is prohibited. Our letter to COGAT, demanding that the 500-permit quota be expanded to allow families to celebrate the holiday together, has received no response.
November 25, 2021. 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. Following the announcement of the 500-permit quota for exit from Gaza to the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, we sent another letter (Hebrew) to COGAT, requesting that the quota be expanded so as to enable Christian families to mark the holiday together.
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.