Many Palestinian and Christian pilgrims say Christmas in Bethlehem has even more meaning following major events this year.
First, their route in the ancient city became a UNESCO world heritage site and just last month, the United Nations granted Palestine the status of non-member observer state.
“This year is so unique because it is not only the birth of Jesus but also the birth of the Palestinian state. I think everyone worked hard to make this Christmas unique in Bethlehem,” Ibrahim Faltas, representative of the Custodian of the Holy Land.
Security is tight ahead of the annual midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity. There’s been a large increase in visitors despite the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. In fact, there’s no room at the inn. All 34 of Bethlehem’s hotels are fully booked.
“In general, 2012 is better than 2011. There was an increase of 20 percent in tourism. In 2011 we had 2 million visitors and this year there was an increase,” said Rula Ma’ayah, Palestinian Minister of Tourism.
Israel has eased travel restrictions for many Palestinians, wanting to celebrate Christmas with their families in Bethlehem and the West Bank.
“We are happy because of Christmas but we’re still sad due to the war (November fighting). They didn’t allow three of my children to cross because they are not giving permits to people between the ages of 16 and 35,” said Samah, a Christian resident of Gaza.
But its not only Palestinians who face long queues, it can take hours for day-tripping tourists to reach Bethlehem from Jerusalem because of the Israeli barriers.