Catholic clergy and laypeople lead the Christmas Eve Mass at the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Family in Gaza City on December 24. (Yousef Masoud/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Israel’s Policies Seen Threatening Christian Presence in Gaza

Arbitrary measures target cultural diversity, encourage emigration, residents insist, though Israeli analysts disagree

There has been a sharp decline in the Christian population of the Gaza Strip, and community members say Israel is to blame.

There were 1,138 Christians living in the coastal enclave in 2017, down from 1,688 in 1997, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Some of Gaza’s Christians attribute the drop to Israeli measures, including a blockade imposed by both Israel and Egypt since Hamas seized power there in 2007.

“Emigration has played a key role in the reduction of the number of Gaza’s Christians,” Kamel Ayad, public relations director for the Church of Saint Porphyrius, in Gaza City, told The Media Line.

“Many Christians have left Gaza seeking better lives in other countries because of the deteriorating economy, the tense security situation and the political deadlock” in the strip, he said.

Ayad believes that Israeli authorities are fostering this demographic change through “arbitrary measures and the ongoing stifling of the Christians of Gaza, whether by preventing them from performing their religious rituals in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, or by [economically] suffocating the area in order to push Gazans to leave.”

On December 12, the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israeli Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, said that Gaza’s Christians would not be permitted to go to Jerusalem or the West Bank for Christmas.

The decision outraged not only the community, but also human rights organizations such as Gisha, an Israeli NGO advocating for freedom of movement.

“Israel has an obligation to protect the fundamental rights of [the Gaza Strip’s] two million residents, including the right to freedom of movement, family life, and freedom of worship,” Gisha said on its website.

On December 22, in the face of stiff criticism, COGAT reversed itself and tweeted that its commander, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun, had “extended the travel facilitations for the benefit of the Christian population of the Gaza Strip in recognition of the Christmas holiday.”

The statement continued: “As part of these measures, entry permits for [travel to] Jerusalem and the region of the West Bank will be issued in accordance with security assessments and without regard to age.”

Israel is usually far more strict with the young, believing that they are more prone to involvement in violence than older people.

Those granted permits were able to celebrate the holiday in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and visit ancient holy sites, although according to Ayad, only 317 out of the 950 Christians who requested a travel permit actually received one.

Samer Tarazi, a Christian, says that things were once far different.

“We used to go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem freely,” he told The Media Line.

“Everything was different – beautiful, in fact,” he said. “Lighting the Christmas tree, buying gifts, celebrating with relatives – all of this is now history. Today, the celebration of Christmas [for the Gaza Strip’s Christians] takes place only at church and in the home.”

Tarazi believes the Israeli measures violate international law.

“International law assures everyone the right of worship and movement, [rights that are] constantly violated by the Israeli occupation,” he complained. “We demand that the international community force Israel to adhere to international laws and treaties.”

Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli brigadier general and head of the program on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, scoffs at the notion.

“No state has an obligation to let everyone that wants to cross its borders to [come in]. Israel is a sovereign state with control over its borders and can decide who and what isn’t allowed to cross without contradicting international law,” he told The Media Line.

Prof. Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, another think tank, concurs.

“I don’t think international law allows freedom of movement from hostile territories to any country,” he told The Media Line. “We are at war with Gaza.”

A Christian resident of the Gaza Strip who asked to remain anonymous, told The Media Line that Israeli measures, including what the resident said was “a policy to give some Gaza Christians permission to travel abroad, but not to Jerusalem or Bethlehem,” were “clear evidence” that Israel was “targeting cultural diversity, history and the Christian presence in Gaza by pushing Christians out.”

With regard to this claim, Inbar is firm.

“We cannot be responsible for the number of Christians in Gaza declining because it is not in our control,” he said.

Brom, however, is more equivocal.

“Israel’s policies are indirectly responsible for the decline of the Christian population in Gaza,” he said.

“Israel is not doing anything specifically to them, but it is keeping up the pressure over the Gaza Strip and the conditions there are tough, so many people want to leave. The advantage that Christians have is that there is more willingness to accept them in the West… so it is easier for them to leave and find shelter somewhere else,” he explained.

Ayad insists that Israeli authorities use unreasonable pretexts to deny Christians permission to go to the West Bank, especially Bethlehem, at Christmas time.

“Every year, they use different excuses… most notably the security pretext,” he said. “In addition to the age restrictions, there is now an arbitrary quota that limits the number of Christians granted permits.”

Brom disagrees.

“The basic Israeli policy is to not allow Gazans to cross its borders to arrive in the West Bank because… it’s a security risk,” he explained. “That is the reason, not a certain quota. There is no such thing.”

Inbar points to the number of Christians in Israel, which is growing.

“We do not bother Christians in Gaza,” he said. “They are bothered by Islamic radicals.”

Yet Ayad insists that Muslim-Christian friction is not an issue.

“Palestinian harmony and the fraternity between Muslims and Christians remain robust,” he said, “and confront all challenges aiming at dividing the nation.”

Tara Kavaler contributed to this report.

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