- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Thousands of tourists flocked to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations yesterday, bringing a long-missing sense of holiday cheer to Jesus’ historic birthplace.

Forecasts of a rare white Christmas added to the excitement.

The festivities capped the most peaceful year since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in September 2000. But Israel’s imposing separation barrier at the entrance to town dampened the Christmas spirit and provided a stark reminder of the unresolved conflict.

The gray concrete wall, which Israel erected to keep attackers out of its cities, divides Bethlehem and blocks access to neighboring Jerusalem.

About 30,000 tourists were expected to visit Bethlehem over Christmas — 10,000 more than last year — but still very different from the 1990s, when 150,000 people would visit during the holiday. By early evening, 7,000 tourists had arrived, Israeli officials said, despite stinging cold winds and rain, which was expected to turn to snow.

Spirits in Bethlehem were buoyed this year by Israel’s summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a sharp drop in violence.

Throughout the day, choirs, marching bands and bagpipe players entertained the crowds. Several thousand people packed Manger Square — the large, stone-paved courtyard near the Church of the Nativity — as a procession led by Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah entered Bethlehem.

At Patriarch Sabbah’s midnight Mass, he said the two sides should put “the past on hold to make room for a new future to begin.”

Speaking at St. Catherine’s Church, adjacent to the traditional birthplace of Jesus, the patriarch also called for an end to Israel’s killing of Palestinian militants, saying the practice has failed to improve security or halt the cycle of violence.

Bethlehem officials decorated Manger Square with Christmas lights, bells and Palestinian flags. People wandered around wearing Santa Claus hats, holding umbrellas against the rain and trying to keep up their holiday cheer.

Security was heavy days after Palestinian gunmen briefly took over City Hall to demand jobs, but there were no reports of trouble.

Owners of restaurants, shops and hotels happily counted their money as visitors packed their establishments for the first time in years.

Locals estimated at least a 20 percent increase in tourists this year.

Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a cease-fire in February, bringing a sharp slowdown in fighting. Some 218 Palestinians and 55 Israelis have been killed this year, compared with nearly 800 Palestinian and 112 Israeli deaths in 2004.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas arrived in town late yesterday to join the celebrations and attend midnight Mass.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called local Christian leaders yesterday to wish them a Merry Christmas, saying he hoped the new year will bring Israelis and Palestinians peace and security.

“We all need it, and I intend to make every effort to reach it,” he said in a statement.

The separation barrier prevented tourists from walking into town on the biblical-era route likely used by Joseph and Mary. Instead, they entered through an Israeli checkpoint.

“The wall has got to go. It’s a wall of shame. Jesus is a uniter, not a divider,” said James Elsman, a 69-year-old lawyer from Detroit, a placard saying “Trust Jesus” draped over his shoulders.

Israel eased restrictions at the main checkpoint, decorating the military structure with posters signed by the Tourism Ministry reading “Peace be upon you” and “Visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem and engage for peace.”

Driving through the checkpoint, Patriarch Sabbah said he hoped it would remain open throughout the year so pilgrims could freely cross into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, the sister city just north of Jesus’ birthplace.

“Nobody needs checkpoints in the Holy Land. This is the Holy Land, and it should be treated as a holy area,” he said.

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