For Gaza’s Christians, Christmas is marred by permits and checkpoints

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  December 23, 2022

 Every year thousands of Christians from around the world travel to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas. But just 46 miles away, an entire community of Palestinian Christians is banned from traveling to the city, even for the holidays.

The city of Bethlehem in the southern occupied West Bank is one of Christianity’s holiest places and a major tourist destination for religious pilgrims.

Every year, thousands of Christians from around the world travel to the city to celebrate Christmas and visit the Church of Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. 

Beneath the church, in a small, dimly lit grotto, is a fourteen-point silver star, marking the exact place where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus. 

Over the centuries, the little grotto has been at the center of global conquests, art, literature, song, and of course, worship. It lies at the heart of the Christian religion, and as such, it draws hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims every year. 

But for Palestinian Christians in Gaza, visiting Bethlehem, which is only an hour’s drive away, is an almost impossible dream.  

“As Christians, we don’t have difficulties practicing our religion inside Gaza, but we face many difficulties just in order to go to our religious places that are outside of Gaza,” Elias al-Jelda told Mondoweiss from inside a local church center in Gaza City. 

“Christians from all around the world can visit Bethlehem. But I am Palestinian from here, and Jesus was Palestinian, and I can’t even go, even though Gaza is just one hour away by car,” he said. “I should be able to go visit Bethlehem and pray in the church whenever I want, but I can’t.”

Celebrating under siege 

The Christian community in Gaza is small, numbering only around 1,500, among a population of more than 2 million people. 

Like the rest of Gaza’s population, they live under siege, which means that access to the outside world is heavily restricted by Israel. For Gazans, any travel to the West Bank or Jerusalem requires Israeli permission first – that includes visits to holy sites. 

Samer Tarazeh hasn’t left Gaza in more than 15 years. The last time he was able to visit Bethlehem was in 2000. 

“I wish I could go to Bethlehem. It’s a special place. It’s the birthplace of Jesus. Everyone should have the right to travel inside his own country freely,” Tarazeh said. 

“My permit applications to leave Gaza have been refused every time for 15 years. I don’t know why. Sometimes my wife and kids get permits, but I don’t. The whole permit system is arbitrary. When we ask why they reject us, they won’t say, or they’ll just cite ‘security reasons,’” Tarazeh said. 

Samir Zaqout, Director of the Gaza-based Mezan Center for Human Rights, says that Israel’s permit system is, by design, meant to make life for Palestinians in Gaza as difficult as possible and cement Israel’s control over every aspect of life. 

“The Israeli occupation has created new criteria regarding who has the right to travel,” Zaqout said.  “The essence of the [permit] system is one of rejection: the rejection of any Palestinian to practice his right to move around.”

“Those who are allowed to move and travel are the exceptions, not the rule,” he said. 

Discriminatory permit system

Because of the nature of Israel’s permit regime, permits to leave Gaza – for work, travel, healthcare, humanitarian reasons, or for the holidays – are arduous to come by. 

This year, over 900 applications were submitted by Christians in Gaza to spend Christmas in the West Bank. A third of those applications were denied. 

“It’s not normal that someone from America, Europe, Latin America, Asia, or any country in the world, can travel easily to Bethlehem and celebrate. But we, the original people of this place, cannot even get to Bethlehem to celebrate with our families, our people, and in our church,” Al-Jelda said. 

“Christmas in Bethlehem is much nicer than it is here because the whole of Palestine and the world gathers there to celebrate,” Florence al-Khoury told Mondoweiss from inside her home in Gaza City. 

“But because we don’t have permits, it’s difficult for us [to go there]. We would love to experience those feelings in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. It means a lot to us. But there are lots of obstacles in front of us,” she said. 

Due to an Israeli quota on the number of permits granted each year, many of the Gazans who received holiday permits have close relatives or immediate family members who were denied permission, leaving them with a tough decision to make. 

“We would love to go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem together, [as a family],” Al-Khoury said. “But unfortunately we can rarely do that. If someone [in our family] has their permit refused, then all of us decide to stay here to gather in the house, so we can at least be together on Christmas.”

In some cases, parents are given permits, but their children are not. In many instances, children will get permits, but their parents will not. For years rights groups and locals in Gaza have said that the quota published by Israel is not only arbitrary but is actually much higher than what is given in reality. 

In 2021 the human rights group Gisha sent a petition to the Israeli authorities that children be allowed to exit with their parents and not be counted in the 500-permit quota due to the fact that more than a third of the applications approved were for children under 16 years old – who cannot travel alone without a parent or guardian. 

“Oftentimes those who get permission are not entire families. Some people get permits for their kids but without their parents. So it’s impossible for any of them to go,” Al-Jelda said, adding that this year, his wife and children were all denied permits, except for his youngest son, who cannot travel on his own. 

On the years that Samer Tarazeh’s wife and kids do get permits, they’ll travel to Bethlehem for the holidays but are forced to leave their dad and husband behind. 

“Of course I feel sad that I can’t celebrate with my wife and kids as a whole family. Around the holidays, whenever my kids go to Bethlehem, they are upset because I can’t go with them,” he said. 

The right to religion

For Palestinian Christians in Gaza, Israel’s restrictions on their access to holy sites aren’t just about the holidays. It’s about their right to practice their religion freely, openly, and without restriction. 

“We are certain that it is not allowed for anyone to prevent me from my freedom to pray and worship,” Al-Jelda said. “Even if you are an occupier, controlling Gaza with a siege, you cannot prevent my right to pray and worship.”

At the end of the day, Samir Zaqout says the obstacles that Gazan Christians face during the holidays as a result of Israel’s permit regime come down to one issue: apartheid. 

“At the core of this system is apartheid,” he said. “It separates Gaza from the world, and separates Gaza from the West Bank, and it separates families.  You can only move freely if Israel allows you.”

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss

Tareq Hajjaj contributed to this report from the Gaza Strip.