Members of Gaza’s Christian community and Palestinian officials said Tuesday that fewer than half of Christians, who are waiting for Israeli permits to visit holy cities such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem at Christmas, have so far received their permits.
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Palestinian border officials said that 316 permits had been issued, while church leaders had requested 800.
On Sunday, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said they would allow Palestinian Christians from Gaza to visit Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank "in accordance with security assessments and without regard to age," canceling an earlier decision not to issue them permits.
“They issued permits for old people, not the young,” said Haifa Assalfiti, 62, before she crossed the Erez border terminal into Israel en route to Bethlehem with her husband.
“My son, my daughter, and my daughter-in-law didn’t get permits. They are at home angry,” she told Reuters.
Public relations director of the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza Kamel Ayyad and board member of Gaza's Young Men's Christian Association Elias al-Jildah told Al Jazeera they were prudent about COGAT's latest statement and said that the phrase "security assessments" could be used as a pretext to arbitrarily refuse permits.
Gaza counts a little more than 1,000 Christians, most of them from the Greek Orthodox denomination who celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.
"I would have loved to pray at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem with my family and visit my sister-in-law and cousins in the West Bank," al-Jildah, 53, said.
"We should all be granted travel permits. Why is Israel playing politics with our rights to free movement and religion?" he added. "Israel's permit system is entirely arbitrary and random; in my family, sometimes only one small child who would get a permit without the parents or the other way around, so it ends up that nobody travels."
Israel tightly restricts movements out of the Gaza Strip where people live under an illegal blockade imposed by the Jewish state and Egypt since 2007.
"For 12 years, Israel has imposed a generalized ban on travel for the people of Gaza, caging in two million Palestinians living in the 11-by-40km strip of land and limiting travel to 'exceptional humanitarian cases'," said Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director of Human Rights Watch.
"Israel, in coordination with Egypt, has turned Gaza into an open-air prison," he added.
Based on humanitarian law, specifically on the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), states are prohibited from imposing a blockade, siege or regime of economic sanctions or any sort of collective punishment against civilian populations.