COGAT yet to announce quota for Easter permits

Church of Nativity, Bethlehem

Church of Nativity, Bethlehem

April 10, 2019. About 1,100 Christian Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip. Ahead of Christmas and Easter, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) usually announces a varying and arbitrary quota of “holiday permits” purported to allow Palestinian Christians from Gaza to visit holy places and celebrate the holiday with relatives in the West Bank and Israel. There have been times when COGAT released the permit quota after the holiday had already passed. Israel frames the permits not as a right, to freedom of religion, or to family life, but rather as a “gesture of goodwill.”

Twice a year, typically, we find ourselves reminding COGAT that it’s time to prepare for issuing the permits in order to prevent a situation in which they tell us “bureaucratic reasons” ruined Christmas. This year, Easter takes place on April 21. A list of individuals asking to exit Gaza was provided to COGAT by the church more than two weeks ago, but COGAT has yet to publish how many permits will be granted, or under what conditions. Delays do not just mean people have to wait until the last minute, it means they could miss the chance to travel altogether. Last Christmas, COGAT admitted that 49 holiday-travel applications made by Christians remained unanswered simply because the unit did not review them in time.

On top of the delays, Israel puts families in an impossible situation, giving just some members of the same family permits but denying them to others, as a means of preventing whole families from exiting Gaza and not returning. Last Easter, Israel also put an age limit on exit permits, announcing it would allow exit only to individuals 55 or older.

Gisha sent a letter (Hebrew) to COGAT demanding it publish the “measures” for Easter. No response has been received to date. The response we got on applications sent on behalf of individuals was that “gestures for the holiday have not yet been published.”

According to COGAT statements, the lifting of travel restrictions usually imposed on Gaza residents for the holidays, both Christian and Muslim, is carried out “as part of a policy to encourage religious worship by all religions.” We maintain that Israel is obligated under international human rights law to respect Palestinians fundamental rights to freedom of movement and religious freedom, and call on Israel to ensure that residents of the Strip are allowed to exercise these rights.