The chief of the Catholic Church in Israel and the West Bank condemned on Saturday the decision by the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to prohibit hundreds of Christians from the Gaza Strip to visit the West Bank for Christmas celebrations.
The majority of the members of the Christian community in the coastal enclave, of which there are about 1,200 people, requested permission to go to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to participate in Christmas celebrations and visit their relatives. Of the 950 requests filed, COGAT only approved 100 of them for people over the age of 45; the requests approved permitted the individuals to travel to Jordan and not to the West Bank.
Over the past week, since Haaretz reported that most of the requests have been denied by Israel, officials in the Catholic Church tried to persuade COGAT chief Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukon to reverse his decision, to no avail. In a letter published Saturday by the church leaders, they wrote that so far, less than a week before Christmas, they have not received a response from COGAT except for "a vague statement which says that 'a final decision on the matter has yet to be made.'"
In a letter of condemnation, church leaders noted that the decision not to allow Gaza's Christians to visit the West Bank infringes upon their freedom of religion, a basic human right. "As other peoples all over the world are permitted to enter Bethlehem in order to celebrate Christmas, so should Christians from Gaza be allowed to celebrate the birth of Jesus the savior in his place of birth. Therefore, we call on the Israeli authorities to permit, without any further delay, the entry of Gazan Christians into Bethlehem so they can celebrate the holiday."
In previous years some 300 to 500 Palestinian Christians received permission to leave the Strip for Christmas celebrations. Some were allowed to go to Jordan, while several dozens were permitted to enter Bethlehem and other areas in the West Bank.
COGAT stated in response that "following consultations with all the security entities in Israel, it has been decided that this year ahead of Christmas, permits will be issued for departure abroad through the Allenby Crossing for Christian Gazans in addition to permits allowing visits from immediate and extended family members for Christian Palestinians living overseas. As for departure permits into Judea and Samaria - a final decision on the matter has not been made yet. Every request that we receive is examined individually and is accepted [or denied] after a process of security analysis."
Israel in the past has defended its restrictions on Gazans traveling to the West Bank, saying many Palestinians from Gaza stay on illegally when granted short-term permits.