Only Christians over the age of 55 will be allowed to enter Israel from the Gaza Strip to pray at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre during Easter, according to a document issued by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Five hundred permits have been issued for the holiday, as compared to 700 for Christmas, but sources in Gaza say that the age restriction means that only about 10 percent of the quota will be filled.
According to Christian clergy in Gaza, who say the limitations are unjustified, only about 120 Christians meet the age criteria and many will not be able to travel without relatives who are under the age limit. George Anton, a Christian community activist from Gaza, said that no permits for Easter have been issued so far.
Easter, also known as the “great feast,” is the most important holiday on the Christian liturgical calendar in the Middle East, as opposed the West, where Christmas takes precedence. Catholics and Protestants will celebrate Easter on Sunday, while the Orthodox churches will mark the holiday two weeks later.
Anton told Haaretz that there are about 1,200 Christians living in Gaza (as opposed to 1,313 documented by a Vatican delegation in 2014). Similar age restrictions were imposed in the past, he said. For the Easter holiday in 2015, following the war in the Gaza Strip the previous year, entry to Israel was barred for people age 16 to 35. However, after church leaders in Israel and abroad intervened, the restriction was lifted and 850 permits were issued.
According to COGAT, restrictions are eased during Muslim and Christian holidays as part of the policy to encourage religious activities of all faiths. But in Gaza, news of the relaxed restrictions are usually made public late, and responses to permit applications are often given too late or are turned down with no reason given.
In a video posted on COGAT’s Facebook about three weeks ago, the day the quota was made public, an Israeli army officer named Alaa Halabi asked Gaza residents who had received permits for Christmas and had not yet returned to do so immediately. Halabi warned that their failure to return would “impact the ability” of COGAT “to take steps ahead of Easter.”
Sources in Gaza believed that a few dozen people did not return after leaving the Strip for Christmas.
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The COGAT document did not reveal the reason for the age restrictions but the office confirmed the age restriction and did not deny that it was a punitive measure. “The State of Israel is a sovereign state that has the right to decide who enters it,” the response stated. “Foreigners have no inherent right to enter Israel, including Palestinian residents of Gaza.” It was decided to issue permits only to those over 55 “In light of the recurring phenomenon of Palestinians who took advantage of the permit to remain in Israel illegally” and “as part of the actions to limit illegal presence in Israel,” COGAT said.
Lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman of the Joint List asked Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan to change the entry conditions so that all Christians would “be able to exercise their basic right to freedom of religion.” Touma-Sliman said she has not yet received an answer. “Israel boasts to the whole world that it is a safe place for all religions. But in fact it continues to harm the Palestinian Christian population,” the lawmaker said. She added that the age restriction “constitutes more proof that Israel has never left Gaza and continues to control everything that happens there.”
Following requests for action from Gaza, the nonprofit organization Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement demanded in a letter to COGAT that the age restriction be lifted and that the number of permits for the holiday be increased. “There is no justification for arbitrary impairment of freedom of movement and religion,” Gisha wrote, “certainly not a dialogue of threats. This is another example of collective punishment of the residents, and generally the punitive and arbitrary nature of Israel’s permit regime with regard to Gazans.”