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Renewed Christmas cheer in Bethlehem

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Renewed Christmas cheer in Bethlehem

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After almost a year free of bloodshed and Israeli army raids, the West Bank town of Bethlehem is enjoying a modest revival of Christmas cheer. Israel has handed over security to Palestinians during the festivities. Some in the Israeli army say they have noticed an improved atmosphere there since the death of Yasser Arafat. But church leaders have lashed out at Israel accusing it of turning the town into what they called, “a big prison”.

But that has not deterred the pilgrims who have been flying into the holy town. More visitors are expected this year than since the Palestinian uprising began four years ago. They have had to negotiate checkpoints to enter Bethlehem. A United Nations report said it was surrounded by some 78 obstacles, these include checkpoints, dirt mounds and barriers. Bethlehem is the only Palestinian town with a large Christian minority of about 35 percent.