Bethlehem looks set to celebrate its most peaceful Christmas in seven years. The Palestinian tourism minister says great pains are being taken to promote the traditional birthplace of Jesus as a safe place. Reinforcements arrived on Sunday. Local security now has 1,500 men. Pilgrim numbers are approaching some 70 percent of levels before the Palestinian Intifada uprising that began in 2000.
Services at the Church of the Nativity are part of a moving experience for Eva, from Poland: ‘‘I’m very excited, I have been waiting for this moment, to come here on Christmas time, probably all my life. I’m really, really, really very happy to be here, and I just can’t wait until midnight.’‘
More Christians means a pickup in sales for local souvenir stores. Michael Canawati was forced to close his shop for two years during the tourism slump early on in the Intifada.
Canawati said: “It is much better than the years before, thank God for that. We hope it will continue like this. We see a lot of people coming into this part of the world celebrating Christmas with us.”
The town is encircled by Israeli security. Foreigners like Americans singing in a choral group may enter. But Bethlehem remains barred to many Palestinians from elsewhere in the territories, including the Christians.