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In Gaza, a sombre Christmas after permits row

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Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

With a shining tree, tinsel and Santa miniatures, Hanadi Missak's apartment is all ready for Christmas, yet she still feels sad about spending the holiday at home.

The 48-year-old is one of hundreds of Christian Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who applied for Israeli permission to travel to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Church leaders say the normally straightforward process has this year been incredibly difficult, with only around one in five applications granted.

With time running out until the celebrations begin, Missak had given up on travelling.

"I was hoping to go to Bethlehem, but the circumstances did not allow it," Missak, who is deputy principal at a Christian school in Gaza, told AFP.

"There is the real celebration -- the prayers, decorations in all the streets and the church," she said.

"The midnight mass is wonderful."

- 'Still hope' -

There are barely more than 1,000 Christians in all of Gaza, where two million people live crammed into a territory only 40 kilometres (25 miles) long and a few wide.

It is geographically separated from the West Bank -- the Palestinian territory where Bethlehem is located -- by Israel, and crossing between them requires hard-to-get Israeli permits.

A few hundred Gazan Christians have traditionally been granted permits to attend Christmas festivities in Bethlehem and Jerusalem each year.

This year, Israel initially didn't announce any permits, prompting criticism from church groups and media.

On Sunday, a statement from COGAT, the Israeli military body responsible for the permits, said some would be granted "in accordance with security assessments".

Gaza is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, which Israel accuses of abusing the permit system to plan attacks against its citizens.

Wadie Abunassar, an advisor to and spokesman for church leaders in the Holy Land, told AFP Monday that out of 951 applications so far, 192 had been granted.

"We still hope there will be more to come. We were promised by many Israeli bodies... but Christmas begins tomorrow," he said.

"We are saying this is a basic human right that should be respected."

Missak said she had travelled to the West Bank multiple times before for Christmas and didn't know why the permit hadn't been granted this year.

COGAT did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the number of permits awarded or Missak's case.

- 'Try to make joy' -

AFP reached out to a number of Palestinians from Gaza who were able to leave the enclave, but none wished to speak out of fear they would jeopardise future chances of getting permits.

Nabil al-Salfiti and his wife Fatten were among those lucky enough to receive permits, but ultimately decided not to travel when their son's application was denied.

They also cited financial constraints for their decision.

Israel maintains a crippling blockade of Gaza it says is necessary to isolate Hamas.

Israel and other critics of the Islamist group, which along with its allies has fought three wars with the Jewish state, accuse it of persecuting minorities.

Local authorities in Gaza used to hold a large celebration for Christmas, but it was stopped after Hamas seized control in 2007.

"People come offer us congratulations and we offer congratulations to them," Fatten said, but, he added, "There is not much joy -- the real joy is in Bethlehem where Christ was born."

Despite not travelling this year, Missak is determined to enjoy Christmas.

Hanging on the wall in her apartment is a stitched "Merry Christmas" sign, while the bannisters are covered in fake holly.

Missak said Muslim friends and neighbours would pass by the house to take part in the festivities.

"Despite all the misery in Gaza, I try to make joy and celebrate Christmas."

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