Days after Palestinian gunmen briefly took over Bethlehem’s city hall to demand jobs and wages, hundreds of Palestinian police and security men packed the festively decorated Manger square, on Saturday, to ensure a peaceful Christmas celebration, one of the town’s most important tourism events; for the first time in six years, tourists are flocking to Bethlehem.
Palestinian police men – most of them unarmed – directed traffic, kept people along the sides of the roads to make room for various processions and just generally made their presence known.
In the Church of the Nativity, built over the biblical grotto of Jesus’ birth, a Palestinian bomb squad armed with hand-held metal detectors searched behind images of Jesus and Mary for any suspicious objects.
“It will go very well. It will be joyful and a very merry Christmas”, said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh. “There is enough police and security; It will be very peaceful”.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Ziad Bandak said that some 30,000 tourists were expected to visit the town of Jesus’ birth for Christmas, 70% of the town’s 5,000 hotel rooms, are booked.
Since Israeli-Palestinian fighting erupted in Sept. 2000, just a few thousand visitors came to Bethlehem during the entire year. Bandak added
Last year, only 5,000 tourists celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem, still a significant increase over recent years when just a few hundred braved the violence and Israeli military siege to come to the town, Bandak concluded.
Yet, Bethlehem residents, shopkeepers, and hotel owners were optimistic that the sharp drop in fighting would revive their town’s economy, which is heavily dependent on tourists and Christian pilgrims.
Meanwhile, the Al Aqsa brigades, the military wing of Fateh, said that Christmas is also a national event, and that the brigades will make sure that celebrations go peacefully.
A spokesperson of the brigades said that when the fighters broke into Bethlehem Municipality buildings, last Tuesday, they intended to send a message to the P.A about their conditions, and to demand employment in P.A devices.
“We chose Bethlehem because it enjoys extensive media coverage during this time of the year”, he added.
Palestinian Police and security devices conducted all of the needed arrangements in the manger square and the streets leading to it.