The crowds continued to swell throughout the day. By Friday night, Israeli military officials, who coordinate movement in and out of the West Bank, said the number rose to some 70,000 people on Christmas Eve alone, compared with 50,000 last year.
Raed Arafat, the 40-year-old owner of the Stars and Bucks Cafe, played Christmas songs over loudspeakers and handed out free Arabic coffee at his shop near Manger Square. Tourists snapped photos and bought mugs emblazoned with the cafe chain’s green logo, modeled after the American Starbucks company.
“There are more people this year,” an ecstatic Arafat said. “Christmas this year is not like every year because now there is more quiet.”
The holiday had its surreal moments. Many visitors were local Palestinians, including a large number of Muslim women whose faces were covered by veils. The loud Muslim call to prayer from a mosque next to Manger Square briefly drowned out the celebrations.
“Because of the hard situation and the pressure we are living in, we take advantage of any joyful moment and bring our children to play,” said Khitam Harazallah, a veiled Muslim housewife from the nearby Deheishe refugee camp who came with her two young children.
Today, just one-third of Bethlehem’s 50,000 residents are Christian, down from about 75 percent in the 1950s. The rest are Muslims.
The Christian population throughout the Middle East has shrunk in recent decades as people flee violence or search for better opportunities abroad. Christians make up roughly 2 percent of the population in the Holy Land.
With the end of fighting, the West Bank has undergone an economic revival in recent years, illustrated by new shopping malls and widespread construction projects in the bustling city of Ramallah.
But a deadlock in Mideast peace talks between Israel and the West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, along with a flare-up in violence between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, threatened to cast a pall over the celebrations.
Abbas, a Muslim, traveled to Bethlehem to greet the revelers, saying he hoped the coming year will finally bring peace. He also said the Palestinians were issuing a special postage stamp honoring Bethlehem.
“We are seekers of peace in the path of Jesus,” he said. “We hope that next year will be a year of peace by establishing the independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side with Israel in peace and security.”
Israel maintains an embargo on Gaza, which is governed by Abbas‘ rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas. In a goodwill gesture, Israel allowed 500 members of Gaza’s tiny Christian community to travel to Bethlehem.
Niveen Wadia, a 40-year-old Gaza woman, said coming to Bethlehem was “a very beautiful feeling.”
“In Gaza we don’t have any celebration atmosphere. We are the minority there,” she said.
Dampening the holiday cheer, Israeli authorities said three Italian pilgrims were killed Friday afternoon when their car crashed into an electric pole near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Two other women in the car were hospitalized. Israeli officials said the women were in the Holy Land to celebrate Christmas.
By Elaine Donnelly
Extending sexual misconduct to combat units
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
Video reviews of today's hottest trends in Minecraft (servers and mods) along with a look at the latest video games with your host MCairsoft14 (alias Jerad Zad).
Covering the world of soccer, including the World Cup, Major League Soccer, D.C. United and the English Premier League and other interesting sporting events.
Contributions to the Communities Sports desk from readers.
Straight talk on climate science, energy economics, and public policy.
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal
Vietnam Memorial adds four names
Cinco de Mayo on the Mall
NRA kicks off annual convention