GAZA – Every year during the Christmas season, Bethlehem becomes the ultimate pilgrimage destination for Christians from all over the world to celebrate the nativity of the Savior. For Gaza’s Christian community, celebrating Christmas and visiting family where Jesus was born is a privilege which half of them do not have.
On November 27, and for the Christmas celebrations, the Israeli military authorities approved 500 permits for Palestinian Christians of Gaza to have access to East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“Last year, 300 permits were given to the Christians in Gaza to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, but only to people over the age of 55,” said Fr. Mario da Silva, Parish priest of Gaza. “This year, 500 permits were approved by Israel. But until this moment, we have only received around 250 permits for people over the age of 55 and between the ages of 16 and 35. However, children under the age of 16 were not included.”
Fr. Mario said that “Israel is using a policy of separation between parents and children. It would give a permit to the father but deprive the mother and the children of the same document. Thus, the family decides not to go and stay together in Gaza.”
For Palestinian Christians of Gaza, obtaining a permit to celebrate Christmas and Easter in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, presents an opportunity to escape their horrific reality; an act that Israel fears and rejects by placing more restrictions on their travel.
A privilege or a natural right?
According to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, there had been 3.8 million tourist entries that were recorded in Israel from January to November of 2018. In November 2018, there had been approximately 389,000 tourist entries, a 35% increase compared to November 2016. The entries are expected to hit 4 million by the end of the year.
While these tourists, mostly Christians, enjoy and make pilgrimages to religious shrines in the Holy Land as their integral human right to freedom of religion, indigenous Palestinians are still slapped with restrictive privileges in the form of military permits to do the same.
“Gaza’s Christians should not require permits to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem,” said Fr. Mario. “It is their right to travel and pray without restrictions!”
There are about 1,100 Palestinian Christians among a population of roughly two million living in the Gaza Strip. Their movement to and from Israel, the West Bank or abroad are governed by a military permit regime, founded by Israel in 1991 to “control the civil affairs of Palestinians including travel, work, and healthcare capacities,” and was further complicated by the construction of the Separation Wall and the setting up of military checkpoints.
Cover photo: Nativity play at the Holy Family Parish in Gaza. ©Andres Bergamini/ LPJ Archives