In the place where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, Christmas celebrations are taking place in the shadow of a concrete wall built by the Israelis to counter the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada.
Authorities in Bethlehem expect between 40,000 and 50,000 pilgrims to make the journey this year.
The Latin Patriarch of the Holy Land, Fuad al-Tuwal, said in his annual Christmas message that the wall is the physical embodiment of a great fear Israelis have, which he said, is preventing them from making courageous decisions to end the struggle.
The barrier has been declared illegal by the World Court.
Bethlehem’s Mayor Victor Batarseh said: “Our people are still under sanctions. This wall is splitting our city. Unfortunately there’ve been no changes to our siege. There are more restrictions. It is damaging the economy of the city, the health of the people living here, and all sectors of this Holy City.”
On the other side of Israel, in the Gaza Strip, around 300 Palestinian Christians, out of the 3,000 or so who live there – have been given permission by the Israelis to celebrate Christmas in the West Bank.
As he crossed into Israel from Gaza one pilgrim said: “It’s a good feeling. I’m very happy we got permission to go to pray in Bethlehem.“ Another said he was delighted he has been allowed to go to see his relatives, just like he did last year.
But those who made the same journey last year returned to quite a different Gaza. Two days after Christmas, Israel launched a three week assault codenamed Operation Cast Lead.
Christmas in Bethlehem overshadowed by wall