While Christians around the world celebrate the days of Christmas as a time of joy and spiritual renewal, the Israeli occupation makes them difficult for Palestinian Christians. Palestine, we should not forget, was the birthplace of Jesus (peace be upon him), and yet local Christians are persecuted there by the occupation security forces. Through its discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests, the targeting of churches and military checkpoints, Israel has pursued a deliberate policy of trying to expel Christians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Jerusalem. The requirement for permits to visit and move around is just part of the wider Israeli policy of denying Palestinians freedom of movement and equal access to their religious sites.
According to a 2019 report by Palestine's official statistics agency, more than 40,000 Palestinian Christians live in the West Bank, down from 47,000 two years earlier. In the Gaza Strip, the Christian population has dwindled from about 3,000 a decade ago to an estimated 1,000 today, among a population of 2 million in the narrow territory. Pre-Oslo, there were around 5,000 Christians in the Gaza Strip. Muslims and Christians alike know that the shrinking Christian population in Palestine is due to the Israeli occupation.
The Head of the Sebastia Diocese of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Archbishop Atallah Hanna, has spoken against the abuses of the Israeli occupation. "There are serious violations of human rights against the Palestinian people, even on their religious occasions," said Archbishop Hanna. "The Israeli occupation has built these racist fences and military barriers to prevent Christians and Muslims from visiting their holy sites and places of worship."
The Apartheid Wall and other Israeli obstacles make it impossible for Palestinians to travel easily from Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, unless they have special permission from the occupation authorities. On many occasions, Palestinians are prevented from going into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and other holy sites, including Al-Aqsa Mosque.
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"We reject the permit system that the Israeli occupation authorities give to whoever they want and withhold it from whoever they want," said the Orthodox leader. "Jerusalem is our city and our capital for all Christians and Muslims."
The occupation poses a threat to Palestinian Muslims as well as Palestinian Christians. The same cruel collective punishments are imposed on all during their religious festivals. Like their Christian counterparts from the West Bank, Muslims can't enter Jerusalem without special permission from the Israeli authorities.
And it's not just people of faith who are targeted. Israel wants to remove all Palestinians, of all faiths and none, from their own land. According to the 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law, it is clear that only Jews have the right of self-determination in occupied Palestine.
"The occupation authorities, with their injustice and tyranny, do not distinguish between a Muslim or a Christian," explained Hanna. "We are all targeted in our sanctities, our institutions, our lives, our festivals, but despite of all these difficulties, we will celebrate Christmas."
The Gaza Strip is not immune from such arbitrary Israeli measures, despite being under siege and cut off from the rest of occupied Palestine. Christians in Gaza require travel permits to go to Jerusalem. Israel usually rejects all permit applications for "security" reasons.
However, a few hundred Palestinian Christians might be allowed to travel from Gaza to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to join their fellow Christians and celebrate Christmas. Last year, Israel wouldn't let any make the journey. No applications were made for travel permits this year due to the cornoavirus pandemic. There have been more than 133,000 Covid-19 cases in the occupied Palestinian territories, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
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The head of the Orthodox Church Public Relations Office in Gaza, Kamel Ayyad, told me that the church normally applies for permits every year through the Palestinian Civil Association in Gaza City. "The Israelis refuse most of the requests, citing 'security' reasons," he confirmed. Ayyad reiterated the right of Palestinian Christians in Gaza to visit their holy sites. "Isn't it ironic that Christians from around the world are allowed to visit, and yet Palestinian Christians aren't?"
Archbishop Hanna pointed out that the pandemic will come to an end. "It's just a matter of time, but what about the catastrophe of the Israeli occupation that targets our youths and children in their worship, their freedom, their subsistence and their lives? When is that going to end?"
That's a powerful question that the Arab states which have normalised relations with Israel are ignoring completely. Israel invites tourists from around the world to visit the Holy Land, but it denies the indigenous population the right to travel and live freely. Even Santa Clause would, I'm sure, need a visa and travel permit if he was a Palestinian.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.