Israel bars Gaza’s Christians from visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem at Christmas

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Move points to Israel’s intensified access restrictions, rights group says

Occupied Jerusalem: Christians in the Gaza Strip will not be allowed to visit holy cities such as Bethlehem and Occupied Jerusalem to celebrate Christmas this year, Israeli authorities said on Thursday.

Gazan Christians will be granted permits to travel abroad but none will be allowed to go to Israel and the occupied West Bank, home to many sites holy to Christians, a spokeswoman for Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians said.

The spokeswoman said that following “security orders”, Gazans would be allowed to travel abroad via Israel’s Allenby Bridge border crossing with Jordan but not to visit cities in Israel or the West Bank.

Gaza has only around 1,000 Christians – most of them Greek Orthodox – among a population of 2 million in the narrow coastal strip.

Break with policy

This year’s decision is a break with usual policy. Last year, Israel granted permits for close to 700 Gazan Christians to travel to Occupied Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other holy cities that draw thousands of pilgrims each holiday season.

Gisha, an Israeli rights group, said the ban points “to the intensifying of access restrictions between the two parts of the Palestinian territory,” calling it “a deepening of Israel’s separation policy” for the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinians seek to set up a state in the West Bank and Gaza, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

The move was never recognised by the international community.