This Christmas, Santa is barred from the blockaded Gaza Strip

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - For yet another year, Gaza's tiny Christian community will be forced to mark Christmas under siege.

Separated from friends and family in the West Bank and barred from visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem's churches of the Holy Sepulchre and Nativity during one of the most important events in the Christian calendar, and faced with harsh humanitarian conditions year-round, large numbers are departing the enclave for safer and easier lives elsewhere.

Gaza's Christian minority, just like other Gazans, cannot travel between the geographically separated Palestinian territories without petitioning Israel in advance to obtain a security permit. But the process is hardly ever straightforward.

Major Delays

"Every Easter and Christmas, we have to petition for travel through the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry, who in turn passes our applications to the Israeli side," Kamel Ayyad, Public Relations Director of Gaza's Orthodox Church, told The National.

"We then wait for a long time to receive an arbitrary decision of approval or rejection without further explanation."

Israel's decision on the petitions is often made at the last moment or even after the celebration is over, says Mr Ayyad.

On November 7, Israeli Human Rights organisation Gisha sent a letter to Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) demanding it announce holiday permits well in advance.

COGAT responded that “efforts are being made to make sure the announcement is made ahead of time to enable residents to receive the information and submit applications in time.”

However, Mr Ayyad explained that only last Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority informed Gaza's Orthodox Church that Israel had opened the door for applications and asked to be sent a list of petitioners who wish to travel out of Gaza at Christmas.

"We reached out to the Christian community in Gaza, of about 1,050 individuals, and 955 of them petitioned to travel to the West Bank and Jerusalem. We submitted the list on December 12. Which is very late already,” he said.

"The whole warmth and spirit of Christmas begins from early December. That's when we should be reunited with families in the West Bank and visit the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Nativity Church in Bethlehem until Christmas," Samir Abu Nusira, a Christian resident of Gaza, said.

"What good is it if we're allowed to visit the West Bank only on Christmas Eve when the month is over?"

Arbitrary Restrictions and Humiliating Quotas

Christian petitioners in Gaza experience a number of incapacitating measures in the process of obtaining a permit, ranging from age limits to arbitrary selection, to quota systems.

Last Christmas, Israel blacklisted 104 Christians in Gaza, rejecting their petitions citing security concerns. Many reached out to the PA and human rights organisations to demand an explanation from Israel, but none has been given.

Gisha's director, Tania Hary, said the decrease in the number of holiday permits issued to Christians shows increased access restrictions between the two parts of the Palestinian territory, and a worsening of Israel’s policy of separation between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

"It's easier to get to Bethlehem if you are a Christian from Japan or California than if you are a Palestinian Christian in Gaza, living just a little over an hour's drive away."

A whole generation of Gazan Christians are also excluded on age grounds. Only those younger than 16 or older than 35 are eligible to apply for an exit permit, with only a few exceptions made over the last two years.

In practice, this means Israel would usually grant permits to some members of a family and not the family as a whole. “In some cases, only the mother and few of her children would obtain a permit, while the father and the rest wouldn't receive any permits," Yusef Daher, Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, said.

"Under international law, all those measures fall into restricting freedom of religion."

Palestinians attend a Christmas tree lighting celebration on Tuesday, December 3, 2019, in Gaza City. AFP

The event was organised by the YMCA Gaza. EPA

The grand tree lighting ceremony was accompanied by sparkler. AFP

Palestinians record the Christmas tree lighting in Gaza City. AP Photo

Crowds gathered by the momentous occasion. EPA

Palestinian youth perform the Dabka dance, usually performed at joyous occasions, at the tree lighting ceremony. EPA

Palestinians play the bagpipes to mark the occasion. EPA

Palestinian youth enjoying themselves at the festive ceremony. EPA

Palestinian boys in Santa costumes add to the festive vibe at the Christmas tree lighting in Gaza City. EPA

Twinkling lights and snowman decorations make the Christmas tree lighting all the more special. EPA

"In a family of 5, when the parents receive permits without their children or the other way around, it often ends up that nobody travels," Mr Ayyad said.

Mr Ayyad explained that Israel further limits the number of those it would allow to leave, even before examining the applications, under a quota system. "Israel usually announces a quota limited to 500 people. However, the number of those successfully receiving the permit is often far less than the quota due to the restrictions Israel imposes on the process."

Moreover, last Thursday, an Israeli official announced another major restriction, according to Reuters, adding that Gaza's Christians who successfully obtain permits, would only be allowed to travel to Jordan and beyond, but not the West Bank or Jerusalem.

Last Saturday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported further restrictions; where COGAT decreased the quota of those allowed to travel to Jordan to only 100 individuals and raised the age limit to above 45 years old. At Easter this year, The National reported similar restrictions made by Israel, which were later retracted.

Gazans were perplexed by this decision, for they have more connection to the West Bank than the outside world.

"I pray they will give me the permit to visit Bethlehem, Jifna and Birzeit and spend Christmas with my daughter and family," Randa El-Amash, 50, a Christian resident of Gaza, told The National. "What matters to us the most is to see our family and loved ones in the West Bank, even if they issue my permit after Christmas."

Ms Hary called Israel’s decision to outright deny movement between Gaza and the West Bank this Christmas “a further violation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights to freedom of movement, freedom of religious worship, and family life, rights that Israel is obligated to protect.”.

Basic rights, not a favour

"Israel continues to frame exit permits it gives during the holidays not as a right but rather as a 'gesture of goodwill,'" Ms Hary added.

"More than just a lack of goodwill and a strange way of wishing Palestinian Christians Merry Christmas, this is a deliberate and insidious policy choice designed to fragment the Palestinian population.”

Mr Ayyad questions why Israel allows foreign and Arab Christians to freely visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem on holy occasions, but make it extraordinarily hard for Gazans to do so.

"This is our most basic right to freedom of movement and freedom of religion guaranteed under international law. It's not a favor. Christmas is as a holy occasion to us as visiting Mecca is for our Muslim brothers."

Diminishing Christian community

The severe movement restrictions under Israel's permit regime, coupled with a tight blockade in place since 2007, has serious negative impacts on Gaza's small Christian community, that eventually render one-way departure the only option to many.

"The permit system affects family cohesion and causes depression and distress to individuals denied their right to freedom of movement," Mr Ayyad said.

"Add to this that Gaza has become unlivable; the blockade affects everyone in all economic, educational, environmental and health aspects. It pushes everyone to try to leave; Muslims and Christians. But for our already small and decreasing community, if 50 Christians end up leaving, it would represent a significant decrease in percentage."

Many Gazan Christians have already left for good, relocating to the West Bank, New Zealand, Europe, the US, Australia and Latin America. Chile alone is home to some 500,000 Palestinian Christians. Before the blockade, Gaza's Christian population spanned around 3,000 people. This year their numbers barely exceed 1,050, with a continuing sharp decrease as the siege on Gaza remains in place.

Updated: December 15, 2019 07:44 PM

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