BY ROBERT BERGER – JERUSALEM – Big crowds turned out for Christmas Eve celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Palestinian boy and girl scouts kicked off Christmas Eve celebrations with a festive march through Manger Square in Bethlehem. The square is decked out with Christmas trees, lights, stars and Palestinian flags.
Then there was a solemn procession through the cobblestone streets.
Priests and monks in white robes marched into the ancient Church of the Nativity, where tradition says Jesus Christ was born.
Thousands of local Palestinians looked on, along with pilgrims from around the world. Robert Chege, who came from Nairobi, Kenya, said Bethlehem on Christmas is an experience of faith. “It’s just interesting thinking about where Christ actually originated from. Just feeling Him in my heart and knowing that He’s such a big part of my life, I wanted to know more about his background, where he stepped on, where he was. So ya, it’s pretty amazing,” he said.
There is a boom in tourism this year thanks to a lull in West Bank violence, and that is good news for Palestinian shopkeeper Nadia Hazboun. “Of course it is good. It is very good. Bethlehem nice now, and look, a lot of people they like to open restaurants, shops, something like that. I think more active now Bethlehem, more active,” he said.
But the upbeat mood is tempered by Israel’s separation wall that surrounds Bethlehem. Israel erected the barrier in response to a wave of suicide bombings, but Hazboun says it is strangling the city. “Prison. Bethlehem (is a) prison now with the wall. The wall is very bad for Bethlehem, especially for Bethlehem,” he said.
Pilgrims are undeterred by the political tensions. Some 90,000 tourists are expected in Bethlehem during the Christmas season, 30 percent more than last year. And that benefits Israelis and Palestinians alike.