Israeli authorities have only allowed 55 Christians in the Gaza Strip to enter the West Bank and Jerusalem to celebrate Christmas, according to local news agency Ma’an.
The Orthodox Church in Gaza said among the 600 official requests that were submitted to Israel, occupation authorities agreed to grant travel permits to just three children and 52 Palestinian elders mostly over the age of 60.
This came after the Israeli Defence Ministry said in a statement on Sunday it would allow Palestinian Christians in Gaza to visit Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank “in accordance with security assessments and without regard to age”, reversing an earlier decision not to issue them permits, a move that was met with immediate backlash by Christian Palestinian leaders as well as Gisha, an Israeli rights group.
A spokesperson from the liaison office, known as Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), had told Reuters that Christians in the Gaza Strip were barred from visiting holy cities through the Erez crossing this Christmas season.
Gaza, which suffers from high unemployment and faces electricity blackouts and drinking water shortages, has only around 1,000 Christians, most of them Greek Orthodox, in a population of two million in the narrow coastal strip.
Israel claims that a number who have been granted travel permits in recent years have remained in the West Bank and have not returned to Gaza.
Israel tightly restricts movements out of the Gaza Strip.
Gaza’s Christians who plan to travel to the West Bank for Christmas or Easter have to apply to Israel in advance to obtain a temporary single-use travel permit from Israel’s COGAT.
The main attractions in Bethlehem are the 4th-century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, and the 16-metre (52-foot) Christmas tree in Manger Square.
Last year, Israel granted permits for close to 700 Gaza Christians to travel to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other holy cities that draw thousands of pilgrims each holiday season.
At Easter this year, similar restrictions were imposed by Israel, 300 Christian Palestinians from Gaza 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”.