Thousands of pilgrims and tourists from around the world descended in the biblical town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas, amidst a lull in violence after a tense year between Palestinians and Israelis.
The manger square, the centre of festivities, right in front of Church of Nativity, believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus, was buzzing with activities on a clear, but cold day, as tourists jostled for space and vendors tried to sell them inflatable Santas, peanuts, toys and other items of traditional craftsmanship.
Security arrangements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town were scaled up in view of recent attacks on Christian sites in neighbouring countries like Egypt and Jordan by Islamic extremists and the Berlin market attack on Monday.
Israel beefed up security in all big cities, as this year Christmas coincides with the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.
Tour agents in Bethlehem and officials in the Palestinian Authority (PA) said that the hotels in Bethlehem were fully booked and they expected pilgrims and tourists to spend an extended holiday this time in Jesus’s birthplace.
“Bethlehem is celebrating today. We are receiving tourists from all over the world,” Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maaya said.
“People over the world are looking at Bethlehem so we hope more and more tourists will come during the year and that next year we will celebrate Christmas without occupation,” said Mayaa, sharing the enthusiasm of other Palestinians in the wake of Friday’s UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Celebrations kicked of yesterday around noon time when Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, started his traditional march from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Pizzaballa was welcomed in Bethlehem by Christian clergymen inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus Christ.
“I wish this joyous atmosphere of Christmas will continue in the year and not just for a few days and I hope the coming year will bring a little more serenity and peaceful relations in our country. We need it,” the clergy said.
The forlorn streets of Bethlehem deserted by tourists, who are the major contributors to the local economy in the West Bank town, during a difficult year marked by sporadic violence, showed signs of revival with Palestinian scouts adorning colourful outfit marching through them and children in Santa Claus outfit strolling all over the place shaking hands with tourists and wishing them Merry Christmas.
Locals were, however, not much optimistic regarding the revival of local economy or tourism.