Christmas in Bethlehem

Israel Lifts Travel Restrictions
( [email protected] ) Dec 24, 2003 10:46 AM EST

The Israeli government announced that it would lift travel restrictions during the Holiday season to allow Palestinian Christians to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. While the current checkpoints will remain in place in the revered city, the soldiers have been ordered to abstain from too many delays.

"Christmas will be celebrated in Bethlehem with the maximum number of worshippers... from all over the world," a government spokesman said. “Soldiers have received special instructions not to have too many delays.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said 100,000 tourists were expected in Israel over the Christmas period - an increase on previous years since the latest Palestinian uprising broke in September 2000.

However, local reports from Bethlehem revealed a different story.

"So far today there have been no tourists," a souvenir shop owner told Reuters news agency.

According to Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, the Israeli roadblocks are the reason for the dwindling number of tourists.

"Factories are closing. Souvenir shops are going bankrupt," he said. “Tourists are not coming and Bethlehem depends on tourism."

Israeli troops pulled out of Bethlehem in July after Palestinian militants declared a temporary truce. The truce was short lived but Bethlehem remains in Palestinian control.

On Tuesday the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Monsignor Michel Sabbah, called on Israel to lift the siege on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to allow him to attend Midnight Mass in Bethlehem.

Yasser Arafat regularly attended the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem after returning to the Palestinian territories in 1994. But he has been prevented from attending since he has been kept under virtual house arrest at his headquarters in Ramallah since early December 2001.