Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christians stream out of Gaza for Christmas

EREZ BORDER CROSSING, Gaza Strip (AFP) — Hundreds of Christians in Gaza flocked to the heavily armed crossing with Israel on Monday after securing permission to leave the Hamas-run territory for Christmas.

Married couples laden with suitcases and young children, teenagers with parents, and grandparents wrapped up against the chill struggled to walk unaided on the long muddy path from the main road to the Erez checkpoint.

Most were hoping to pray on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, the small town in the West Bank where the Bible says Jesus was born. Others were hoping to visit relatives in the occupied West Bank, Israel or Jerusalem.

"We only got the permission last night. It took a month to come through, so then we had to immediately prepare everything and pack," said Rania Sabieh, guarding the luggage and her two children as her husband went to register.

"We're going to Bethlehem to pray. For one week. We have friends there, but then we'll come back to Gaza. My husband doesn't have a job but the children need to go back to school here," said Rania.

Israel has imposed a total closure on Gaza since Hamas -- a radical Islamist movement officially sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state -- seized armed control of the territory six months ago, routing Palestinian moderates.

Declaring the territory a "hostile entity", Israel has imposed cuts on fuel deliveries and allows in only essential humanitarian supplies.

The United Nations has warned that Israeli restrictions on Gaza are pushing the local economy to the brink of collapse.

Israel has granted permits to 520 of about 3,500 Christians living in Gaza to leave in order to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in Israel and the West Bank until January 2.

"Today we are coordinating for more than 500 Christians in Gaza to go to Israel and the West Bank for the Christmas celebrations," Israeli Colonel Meir Press told AFP by telephone.

"The Christians will be leaving today. It's a special privilege," said Shadi Yassin, spokesman for the Israeli military administration.

"They will be receiving a special permit that allows them to travel between the West Bank and Israel freely and that way they can celebrate and participate in Christmas and New Year as they choose," he said.