Gaza’s Christian community denied Easter permits

Church in Gaza. Photo: Karl Schembri

A church in Gaza. Photo: Karl Schembri

March 28, 2018. Easter is a time when Christians all over the world gather to pray and celebrate with family. However, most Christians living in Gaza will not be allowed to exit the Strip over the coming Easter holiday and spend it with their families outside the Strip, due to restrictions imposed by Israel.

On March 15, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) published (Hebrew)  its “special measure” for the upcoming Easter holiday: A quota of 500 exit permits for Christians in Gaza who are over the age of 55; despite the fact that there are no more than 120 Christians living in Gaza who meet COGAT’s criterion. For comparison, the arbitrary quota announced by COGAT last Christmas was 700; last Easter it was 700, both without specified age limitations.

A week before the quota was published, a video was posted to COGAT’s Facebook page in Arabic. In it, Alaa Halabi, an officer of the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (COGAT’s operative unit), calls on Gaza residents who received exit permits for Christmas and have not yet returned to the Strip to return there immediately; saying that due to these cases, Israel will ‘have difficulties’ allocating exit permits for Christians in Gaza to travel during Easter. Given this address to Gaza’s Christian community, the reduced Easter quota and the age limitation specified within it are openly an act of collective punishment against Christians in Gaza.

On the day that COGAT’s permit quota was announced, Gisha sent a letter to COGAT (Hebrew), Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, demanding that he remove the age restriction on Easter permits and increase the number of permits allocated to Gaza’s Christians for Easter.

On March 20, Member of Knesset (Israel’s parliament) Aida Touma-Sliman sent an urgent letter (Hebrew) to the deputy defense minister, listing her objections to COGAT’s decision.

Every year, Gisha contacts COGAT in advance of the Christian holidays and demands that the quota of permits be published ahead of time, so that Gaza residents are able to submit their applications and take advantage of the rare opportunity to travel and meet their family members. COGAT regularly announces its so-called holiday “gestures” at the very last minute, sometimes after the holiday has begun. Frequently, some family members receive permits, while others are denied, splitting families apart for the holiday so that they won’t stay in Israel or West Bank, or forcing them to forgo the chance of reuniting with extended family and praying at the holy sites.

According to COGAT, holiday permits are introduced and travel restrictions are alleviated during religious holidays in order to honor Gaza’s Christian and Muslim communities “as part of a policy aimed at encouraging religious worship for all religions.” Gisha calls on Israel to respect Gaza residents’ fundamental rights to freedom of movement and religious freedom, which includes traveling for prayer at the holy sites and celebrating with family.