Hundreds of Palestinian Christians in Gaza are still anxiously waiting on Saturday to hear whether Israel would grant them exit permits in time to join Easter services in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
In previous years many, though not all, of Gaza’s 1,100-strong Christian minority have been granted exit permits to Jerusalem and the West Bank for worship and to visit relatives at Easter and Christmas. But last week the Israeli military announced that only 200 Christians over the age of 55 would be allowed to travel to Jordan – without stopping in Jerusalem.
The unprecedented decision sparked protests, including by the Israeli human rights agency Gisha, which called it “a further violation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights to freedom of movement, religious freedom and family life”.
The agency added that it was part of a policy to “deepen the separation” between Gaza and the West Bank and “advance and legitimise … annexation of the West Bank”.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, suggested this month he is contemplating such unilateral annexation of at least parts of the West Bank.
Then, in an apparent shift, Israeli government officials said on Friday: “Following the recommendations of the security establishment, during this coming Easter hundreds of Christians from the Gaza Strip will be allowed to visit Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and East Jerusalem and to go abroad.” However, on Saturday leading Christians in Gaza said no permits had so far been issued.
Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters
For Gaza’s small Catholic community, the main pontifical mass is held at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Most Christian Gazans are Greek Orthodox and observe Easter next weekend.
George Anton, a prominent Catholic Gaza activist, expressed scepticism that permits would be issued in time despite “rumours” to the contrary, especially because of extra restrictions during this week’s Jewish Passover holiday. He said Catholics in Gaza were “upset” and “disappointed” at not having already received permits.
“We don’t see any reason to refuse our permits,” Anton added. “We understand that there is a siege of Gaza and procedures against its citizens. But Christians from Gaza are no threat to Israeli security. And it is our right to celebrate our religious holidays in international law, as it is for all Christians, Jews and Muslims. The churches should be putting this issue in the political arena.”
Hani Farah, secretary general of Gaza’s YMCA, said that while he was encouraged by indications that Israel might be relenting, even in the past many applicants had been refused. “Sometimes the parents get permits and the children don’t, and sometimes the children get them and the parents don’t.”
Like hundreds of other Christian Gazans who had applied for permits as long ago as last month, Farah – who is a lay member of the Greek Orthodox community – had not so far received one for himself, his wife or their four children.
Miriam Marmur, Gisha’s international spokesperson, said: “It’s hard to imagine that Israeli authorities will have time to process individual permit applications while understaffed during Passover. And even if permits … are suddenly announced, people won’t have time to prepare for travel or appeal the decision if they have been denied a permit.” Ms Marmur said that the conduct of the issue “reflects the disturbingly little concern that Israeli authorities have towards the actual needs of Gaza residents, let alone their fundamental rights”.
There was no immediate response from the Israeli military’s civil affairs division, Cogat (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), when asked on Saturday how many permits for Jerusalem and the West Bank would be issued, and when.