Israeli authorities have banned Christians from the besieged Gaza Strip from celebrating Christmas at holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. Occupied by Israel for over 50 years, Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem are forced to obtain travel permits from Israel to travel within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), to enter Israel or to go overseas.
Israeli officials, citing “security orders”, announced that no travel permits would be granted to Palestinians from Gaza so that they could celebrate Christmas in Christianity’s most sacred cities. The decision has sparked widespread anger and disappointment.
“Israel talks about respect for freedom of religion but its actions are the complete opposite of this,” said Hanan Ashrawi of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). “Palestinians are essentially being held captive, and Israel destroys anything that is meaningful to Palestinian life – in this case it is religion,” she said in an interview with the Afro-Palestine Newswire Service.
Israeli groups have also slammed the decision. “This is a reflection not only of Israel’s disregard for the rights of Palestinians living under its control, but also of Israel’s misleading use of ‘security reasons’ to justify denying outright their movement,” said Tel Aviv-based group, Gisha.
Rifat Kassis, the co-ordinator of Kairos Palestine – an umbrella movement of Palestinian Christians of various denominations, which advocates for ending the Israeli occupation finds it unacceptable that indigenous Christians who live a few kilometres away from Jerusalem cannot visit, while foreign pilgrims can fly in without any problem.
Hamas spokesperson, Basem Naim, also condemned Israel’s barring of Gaza’s Christians from Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Despite the widespread criticism, Israel has insisted that the travel ban will remain in place.
There are only 1000 Christians left in the Gaza Strip. Israel claims that the sharp decline in the Christian population is due to the persecution of Christians by Hamas. Palestinians, however, deny this.
“Many Christians feel that there is little hope for a better future for their children under Israeli occupation, and this has contributed to the growing emigration of Palestinian Christians. Christian Palestinians are under threat from the Israeli occupation – not Islam,”says Awwad Hilal, the coordinator of Musalaha Women’s Ministry in Bethlehem.
The South African Council of Churches (SACC) has condemned Israel’s occupation of Palestine, calling Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “worse than apartheid”.
In September, the Anglican and Methodist Churches of Southern Africa resolved to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel until it ended its military occupation of Palestine.