Christians in the Gaza Strip will not be allowed to visit holy cities such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem to celebrate Christmas this year, Israeli authorities said on Thursday.
Only some 100 Gazan Christians will be granted permits to travel abroad but none will be allowed to go to Israel and the West Bank, home to many sites holy to Christians, a spokeswoman for Israel's military liaison to the Palestinians said.
Israel tightly restricts movements out of the Gaza Strip, territory controlled by Hamas, an Islamist group that it considers a terrorist organization.
The spokeswoman said that following "security orders", Gazans who are older than 45 would be allowed to travel abroad via Israel's Allenby Bridge border crossing with Jordan but not to visit cities in Israel or the West Bank.
Gaza has only around 1,200 Christians – most of them Greek Orthodox – among a population of 2 million in the narrow coastal strip. Over 900 of them applied to leave Gaza for Christmas.
This year's decision is a break with usual policy. Last year, Israel granted permits for close to 700 Gazan Christians to travel to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other holy cities that draw thousands of pilgrims each holiday season.
In April, 300 Gazan Christians were allowed to visit the West Bank and Jerusalem for Easter only after public pressure on Israel to change its initial decision to bar them from entering the West Bank and Israel.
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One Christian woman voiced hope Israel would reverse its policy so she could visit her family in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"Every year I pray they will give me a permit so I can celebrate Christmas and see my family," Randa El-Amash, 50, said, adding: "It will be more joyful to celebrate in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem."
Another Gazan Christian told Haaretz the Israeli policy means "almost no one will leave. It's a very small community, and there's no reason why everyone shouldn't go to the West Bank or Israel, or even abroad, during the holiday."
He added that community members had been hopeful that indirect talks that Israel and Hamas have been holding for the past few weeks for a long-term calm in Gaza would help their cause, but that hope was short-lived.
"We've had a Christmas tree lighting in Gaza for the second year in a row, and it gave everyone a good feeling," he said. "But unfortunately the decision to issue only a very limited number of permits ruined the atmosphere, because even those who did get permits aren't going to leave their families in Gaza and go alone."
Gisha, an Israeli rights group, said the ban points "to the intensifying of access restrictions between the two parts of the Palestinian territory," calling it "a deepening of Israel's separation policy" for the West Bank and Gaza.
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.
Christian leaders in Jerusalem condemned the move, but added that they are appealing to Israeli authorities to reverse the decision.
"Other people around the world are allowed to travel to Bethlehem. We think Gaza's Christians should have that right, too," said Wadie Abu Nassar, an adviser to local church leaders.