Palestinians lit a four-story Christmas tree in this biblical town on Saturday, kicking off a holiday season that officials say will bring the most pilgrims in seven years in light of the recent resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Residents of the West Bank town of 30,000 and foreign tourists alike strolled streets Saturday under lights shaped like bells and Santa Claus. Christians count for only a small percentage of Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land, including Bethlehem, but the town believed to be the birthplace of Jesus is one of the few places that Christmas is felt.
"We see encouraging signs with more tourists here," said Hanna Tofian, a university professor, as he emerged from prayers at the Church of the Nativity to a square crowded with tour buses. "It is because of the diplomatic atmosphere and because there is movement in talks with Israel."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed in a U.S.-hosted conference last month to renew peace talks. The reconciliation came after Abbas kicked the Islamic Hamas movement out of the government following its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June, and installed a moderate administration of his own.
Tourism is integral to efforts to bolster the Palestinian economy, which is tattered from fighting with Israel that broke out in 2000. Mideast envoy Tony Blair visited Bethlehem this month and spent the night in what he said was meant to be a signal to the world that it is safe to visit the town.
Early in the fighting, Bethlehem was the scene of fierce shootouts between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli army forces situated in nearby Jerusalem who fired at each other across a riverbed separating the communities. For several Christmas seasons, only a handful of tourists visited the town.
Israeli, Palestinian security forces cooperate
This season, around 65,000 tourists are expected to visit the traditional site of Jesus' birth, Mayor Victor Batarseh said this month. That's four times the number of visitors who came in Christmas 2005, when only 16,000 tourists trickled into the town.
Israeli and Palestinian forces have cooperated to facilitate the passage of pilgrims from Jerusalem through an Israeli army checkpoint into Bethlehem, said Ahmed al-Haddar, the area's Palestinian security chief. About 1,500 Palestinian police will be deployed during the festivities, he said.
A visitor from Dallas, Texas said Saturday that he was so sure of the calm situation that he brought his son on the trip. He was touring with 70 Americans.
"This is a place that, as a person of faith, is very meaningful to me," said Larry Ross, 54, standing alongside his son, Harrison. "The message of hope that Christmas brings started right here."
An aide to Abbas, Rafik Husseini, flicked the switch to light the pine tree that was decorated with red and gold balls. Dozens of onlookers cheered and a band of bagpipes played Christmas carols.
Bethlehem resident Margaret Jackman, 70, said she was encouraged by the tourists.
"The town greatly benefits from this," Jackman said. "This will help reduce the unemployment."