The Christian world will be celebrating Easter this week and next. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this holiday, which symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus, is considered the principal festival, as opposed to Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity, which places more emphasis on Christmas in December.
According to the calendar of Western Christianity, Easter will begin this coming Sunday, April 21, and will last for two days, but the religious ceremonies began already this past Sunday, Palm Sunday, when the entry of Jesus to Jerusalem is celebrated.
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In the Eastern Orthodox communities the holiday will be celebrated a week later, on April 28. On this holiday Eastern Orthodox Christians from all over the world customarily visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, mainly for the Holy Fire ceremony, and to participate in masses and ceremonies that last for several days.
Christians from the Gaza Strip used to receive a permit to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to participate in the ceremonies, but this year only 200 Christians over the age of 55 are being allowed to leave the Strip for the holiday - and only to Jordan, via the Allenby border crossing.
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories describes this as an easing of restrictions for the purpose of celebrating Easter, but the Christian community in Gaza doesn’t consider it an act of leniency, but just the opposite.
Elias Al Jelda, one of the prominent activists in the Orthodox Christian community in Gaza, told Haaretz that the Christians in Gaza are a small community of 1,100 to 1,200 people, including adults and children, so that there is actually no problem with letting them all leave for the holiday.
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“In previous years they would give permits to 500 to 600 people, but far fewer actually left, because there were cases where they gave [permits] to part of the family, and then the entire family decides not to go. This year the situation is much more difficult, they’re approving the exit of 200 people over the age of 55, and only to the Allenby Crossing and from there to Jordan. What reason do we have to go there, and especially when we’re talking about older people.
“In effect maybe 30 or 40 people, who are interested in going abroad, will leave, but we want to get to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Bethlehem, and in general to visit relatives and friends in the West Bank. Israel claims that there is freedom of worship, and talks about leniency, but is actually only increasing the closure and the pressure.”
Al Jelda says that usually the Christians in Gaza submitted at least 800 to 900 requests to go to Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the fact that only 200 were given permits, makes the leniency irrelevant.
Samir Abu Daoud is retired from the UNRWA school system in Gaza. He is 66 and has a son and grandchildren in Ramallah, but has been unable to leave Gaza on any holidays since 2006.
“I want to get to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and to visit my son and see my grandchildren. What’s the problem, I’m an elderly man and I don’t constitute a security risk to anyone and I’m not interested in going abroad, and in any case I want to return to Gaza after the holiday vacation, but to my great regret that’s not happening.”
Arab MK Aida Touma Sliman of Hadash has also appealed to the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories to increase the quota of permits and eliminate the age restrictions.
“COGAT’s decision to limit Easter permits to traveling abroad, for the first time this year, is motivated by extraneous considerations, first and foremost separating the two parts of the Palestinian territory - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” She says that last Christmas about 630 permits were granted, and on Easter in 2018 there was an allocation of 500 permits, including to Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“This extreme restriction on freedom of movement, freedom of worship and the right to a family life for Christian residents of Gaza is only an example of a larger process, of implementing the Israeli ‘isolation policy,’” says the human rights organization Gisha, which also received complaints about the restrictions preventing members of the Christian community from leaving the Gaza Strip.
According to Gisha, the main purpose of the effort to prevent movement from Gaza to the West Bank is to split apart the society that is torn between separate parts of the Palestinian territories, one reason being in order to prepare for the annexation of the West Bank.
“Israel is obligated to operate according to international human rights law, and to honor the Palestinians’ rights to freedom of movement and freedom of religion and worship. Obstructing the opportunity to celebrate the holiday with family members constitutes collective punishment. It has no security justification,” says the organization.
COGAT confirmed that the quota for the exit of members of the Christian community from the Gaza Strip is 200 people ages 55 and over, and that they are permitted to travel to Jordan and there will be no possibility of going to Jerusalem or the West Bank. COGAT said that they are acting based on security considerations and that the body responsible for determining the conditions is the defense establishment.
A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that some Gazan Christians have been permitted to travel to Jerusalem for Easter, via Jordan. Rather, Israel has rejected these requests to travel to Jerusalem and is only allowing travel to Jordan and not to Jerusalem.