Israel's Civil Administration said it intends to allow nearly a thousand Christians from Gaza into Jerusalem and the West Bank over Christmas, pending a security screening.
The move comes after the authorities had initially said they would deny the permits, allowing only around 100 Palestinians to travel abroad through Jordan, but none to Jerusalem or the West Bank. Around 950 Christians from Gaza filed applications to exit the Palestinian enclave this year. Many have relatives outside the Strip.
Seemingly reversing the decision, the Civil Administration also said permits would be issued regardless of the applicants' ages, while in similar cases it often restricts the movement of Palestinians under a certain age.
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Initially, a Civil Administration 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.
In a letter of condemnation, church leaders in Israel and the West Bank 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."
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.
In 2018, 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 previous years, Israeli authorities had been more restrictive.
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.
When Israel only releases a limited number of permits, also others who received approvals end up not going because their relatives had their application turned down.
Gisha, an Israeli rights group that focuses on freedom of movement, said Israel's strict policies on exit permits for Gazans aim at "deepening the separation" between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.