'We are all trapped': Israel bars Gaza's Christians from visiting holy sites
For the second year in a row, Haneen Elias al-Jilda fears that Israeli authorities will deny her the right to perform religious rituals and participate in Christmas celebrations in the city of Bethlehem.
Last year she was prevented from obtaining a permit to travel from the besieged Gaza Strip to the occupied West Bank through the Erez crossing.
Such disappointment and frustration are prevalent among Gaza's Christians.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Israeli Military Liaison Office with the Palestinians said that Palestinian Christians residing in Gaza could obtain permission to travel abroad, but that none of them would be allowed to enter Israel and the West Bank, where many sites sacred to Christians are located.
The spokeswoman said that following "security orders", Gazans would be allowed to travel abroad via the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, but could not to visit cities such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Christians in Gaza are generally known to be unaffiliated to Palestinian political factions and forces, but Israel often invokes security reasons when refusing to grant permits.
Since 2017, al-Jilda has not received a permit to travel to the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, to participate in Christmas celebrations at the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest religious sites for Christians in the world.
“Christian pilgrims come to the Church of the Nativity from around the world, while the Palestinian suffers misfortunes in his right to travel, worship and visit relatives,” the 19-year-old woman told Middle East Eye.
Israel places severe restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in and out of the besieged Gaza Strip.
With regards to Christians, it contends that a number who have been granted travel permits in recent years have remained in the West Bank and have not returned to Gaza.
But al-Jilda rejected such claims. "I love Gaza, and I never think about emigration or residency whether in the West Bank or anywhere else," she said. "Here are my family and friends."
She believes that Israel's justifications are "flimsy", arguing that Palestinian Christians are Palestinian above all, and pointing out that Israel does not differentiate between Palestinians in its discriminatory procedures, blockades and complications.
No regard for families
Al-Jilda is part of a family of five who have repeatedly suffered during previous holidays, as one or more relatives have been denied travel permits by Israel every year.
Last year, the family was granted just one permit for al-Jilda's nine-year-old brother.
“This is the occupation that encroaches even on the joy of holidays,” said al-Jilda.
Last year, Israel allowed around 700 Christians from Gaza to travel to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other holy cities to participate in Christmas.
Kamel Ayyad, the director of public relations at the Orthodox Church in Gaza, however said that Israel gives "fake" permits to Gaza Christians, because it decides on an arbitrary "quota" without regard for families, who often decide to forgo travel rather than be separated during the holidays.
"Is it logical for a family to go out to celebrate without one of its children, because Israel prevented them from obtaining the permit?" he said.
Ayyad himself was one of 104 Christians to whom Israel refused a permit to travel from Gaza to the West Bank last year. His wife was denied a permit six times.
He stressed that Israel was also violating the rights of Gaza's Muslim population by preventing them from reaching the Al-Aqsa Mosque in annexed East Jerusalem, in flagrant violation of international covenants guaranteeing freedom of worship.
"I have many friends in Bethlehem, and we have relatives who live in Beit Sahour, adjacent to the city of Bethlehem," said Ayyad.
"We will not be able to visit them this year if Israel sticks to its decision, but we are preparing for the atmosphere of Christmas in Gaza despite the siege, because we want to bring joy to our children."
Discriminated against regardless of religion
Hani Farah, secretary general of Gaza's YMCA, agrees with Ayyad.
"Just as Israeli bombs and missiles do not differentiate between Palestinians, the blockade and its repressive measures do not differentiate between a Muslim and a Christian," Farah told MEE.
"We are all trapped in Gaza and we share the same pain and suffering."
With the exception of the holiday seasons, Christians suffer from severe restrictions imposed by Israel on the movement of Gaza residents to the West Bank, according to Farah.
He said: "In normal times, denial of permit requests is the overwhelming result."
Farah said that 955 Christians applied for a permit to participate in this year's Christmas celebrations, according to one list submitted to the Palestinian Civil Affairs Department, which specialises in communicating with Israeli officials.
Since Israel first imposed a strict blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2007, Gaza's Christians, like the majority of the population of the coastal enclave, have faced severe restrictions in obtaining permits.
Last year, Farah and all of his five children - the oldest is 11 and the youngest four - obtained permits, but his wife was denied one.
Farah says that Israel intentionally approves too few permits for Christians to mark their holidays, and even when permits are granted, it prohibits some members of the same family from leaving.
Farah described the numbers circulated annually of how many permits are granted to Christians in Gaza as "fake and misleading".
"What is the benefit of granting children permits without both or one of their parents?" he said.
Farah said that the majority of the permits granted since the imposition of the blockade on Gaza in 2007 are for children, while Israel prevents a large number of men and youths from leaving.
Only 1,313 Christians, most of them Orthodox, live in the Gaza Strip, according to the most recent census conducted by the YMCA in 2014, among a population of approximately two million.
Driven away by the shattering economic situation, the siege, and the Israeli wars, the number of Christians in Gaza has shrunk in recent years, some of whom have moved to live in the West Bank or abroad.
Sana Tarazi, who has a son who works in medical engineering in Oman, was forced to travel through the Rafah crossing with Egypt to see him after Israel refused to grant her a permit to travel through Erez.
Tarazi had applied in March for a permit to travel through the Allenby Bridge but did not receive a response, leading her and her husband to travel through Egypt.
An employee of the High Presidential Committee for Churches Affairs of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Tarazi said: "The suffering of Palestinians under occupation is the same regardless of their religion, race and gender."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.