Israel will ease access to Bethlehem during Christmas in a “calculated risk” meant to let Christian pilgrims celebrate the holiday freely in the West Bank town, security officials said Monday.
Israeli Lt. Col. Aviv Feigel said pilgrims will not need permission from the army to enter the town, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. The military also will try to speed entry by conducting spot checks of random tourist buses rather than checking every bus, he said.
Arab Israelis and Christian Palestinians will be allowed to drive into Bethlehem, Feigel said.
“We are taking a calculated risk by easing steps and that is because we are well aware of the importance of Bethlehem,” Feigel told reporters.
He also said Palestinian Christians will be allowed into Israel to visit family. Restrictions are to be eased starting Dec. 24 until Jan. 18, when the Armenian church celebrates Christmas, he said.
Checkpoints erected around West Bank towns and cities frequently cause logjams of passengers and vehicles. Palestinian officials complain about the checkpoints and say they also worry that a barrier Israel is building in the West Bank — cutting Bethlehem off from Jerusalem — will keep tourists from visiting.
Feigel said a new checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem that has been operating since Nov. 15 has not reduced the number of tourists.
Recent Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem have been subdued because of five years of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis, and because of Israeli security restrictions. Israeli soldiers shut down the town during a siege at the height of the fighting in the spring of 2002 after armed militants took sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity.
The number of visitors increased last year as violence decreased, and more were expected this year. Town officials are planning an open-air Christmas market and over the weekend workers set up small stages for dances and choir performances.
Some 250,000 pilgrims have come to the town of 30,000 since January, compared to 100,000 in all of last year, Feigel said.
But Feigel said the quiet in Bethlehem is misleading. Half of the Israeli fatalities in 2004 were caused by attackers who entered Jerusalem from Bethlehem, he said.
On Thursday, a car bomb was found on a road used by West Bank settlers traveling between Jerusalem and the Bethlehem area. Palestinian police alerted Israeli security to the car, and Israeli sappers blew it up safely.