GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — About half of the Gaza Strip's Christian population will be allowed to enter Israel and the West Bank to celebrate Christmas. Israel will offer some permits to visit relatives and holy places in Israel and the West Bank and about 200 people will be allowed to travel abroad through Israel to Jordan.
About 1,030 Christians live in Gaza, a small proportion of Gaza’s population of two million. Christians in Palestine celebrate Christmas according to the Western calendar on Dec. 25, while Orthodox groups celebrate it on Jan. 7.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem attracts tens of thousands of Christians from around the world at Christmas time.
In 2019 and 2020, the Israeli authorities prevented Gaza’s Christians from making their usual Christmas trips to Bethlehem. In 2019, they allowed a limited number to travel outside Gaza but not to the West Bank.
In 2020, it completely prohibited Gazans from traveling over the coronavirus pandemic, closing the Erez crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel in March 2020 for 18 months. However, it eased some travel restrictions in early August 2021 and thousands of permits were granted to residents of the Gaza Strip to work inside Israel as part of the Egyptian-mediated truce concluded between Hamas and Israel following the latest fighting in May 2021.
Al-Monitor tried to contact Hamas to ask whether these Israeli incentives fell within the truce deal, but no response was forthcoming.
Kamel Ayad, director of public relations at the Orthodox Church in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor that after a two-year ban, the church is optimistic about Israel allowing Christians to issue permits to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem.
Avad said that the church is awaiting an Israeli response to the 723 permit applications.
He explained that Israel runs a security check on all permit applicants and may reject half or most of them for undefined security reasons. It may grant a 10-year-old girl a permit and deny the rest of her family, an error he finds intentional. Though many of Gaza's Christians would like to make the pilgrimage, many children and elderly people are unable to travel, and some would-be applicants lack the vaccinations Israel requires for a permit.
He indicated that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the celebrations in the Gaza Strip will be limited to prayers at church and lighting the Christmas tree. The church used to organize parties with traditional Palestinian songs and distribute Christmas gifts to children from Santa Claus.
He said that prior to the Palestinian division in 2005, the church used to light a huge Christmas tree in the Unknown Soldier’s Garden in the center of Gaza City and a youth group called the Orthodox Scouts would hold parades.
Asked why Christmas celebrations in Gaza have diminished so much, he indicated that the number of Christians has decreased due to the deteriorating conditions in the Gaza Strip, the high unemployment rates, and the recurring wars on Gaza. He said that when the Palestinian Authority rose to power, the number of Christians was approximately 6,000.
Last year, the Hamas-run Ministry of Endowments in the Gaza Strip issued a circular in mid-December discouraging Muslims to participate in Christmas celebrations in the Gaza Strip. Ayad explained that nevertheless, all of his Muslim neighbors and friends celebrated with him.
“It is just unthinkable for my Muslim neighbors to wish me well on such a great occasion. We are all here as one community and we reject discrimination,” he added.
He said that fraternity between Muslims and Christians in the Gaza Strip dates back to thousands of years and no such directive can alter that. It was not long before the government backtracked but even if it hadn’t, he said, the circular would never have been respected.
Riad, a pseudonym, does not consider Israel’s issuance of permits to half of Gaza’s Christians an achievement. He feels that Israel is only trying to promote itself as a humanitarian country that upholds moral values.
“All Palestinians have the right to travel and perform their religious rituals without any obstacles,” Riyad, who applied for a permit and is awaiting a response, told Al-Monitor.
Issa, another pseudonym, disagreed, telling Al-Monitor that he rejects the idea of permits from an occupying country to visit a Palestinian city, as the Oslo Accords guarantee the right of movement for Palestinians between Palestinian governorates.
Issa said he has other security reasons preventing him from submitting a permit application but did not want to discuss them. He said, “The right to worship is protected by law. How can Israel prevent it? Do we have to thank it for allowing some of us to pray where Christ was born?”
He said that Christmas in Gaza feels incomplete now that so many Christians have left and extended families can't be together.
Issa explained that the migration of Christians from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank and Jerusalem is motivated by their quest for freedom and a better future. He said, “The right to freedom of worship is guaranteed in the Gaza Strip, but the right to dress and drink and be open-minded is obviously not.”
He also said that the circular from the Ministry of Endowments in Gaza forbidding Muslims from sharing in their celebrations angered the Christian community.
“This fatwa hurt us, but we moved on,” Issa said.
An opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research last year revealed that a higher proportion of Christians wish to emigrate than among their Muslim peers.