Dozens of Palestinian protesters, some of them festively dressed as Santa Claus, clashed on Tuesday with Israeli security forces in Bethlehem, a day before the beginning of Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city revered as the birthplace of Jesus.
The demonstrators gathered at Bethlehem checkpoint to protest against "an occupation that controls our lives, and surrounding us with the apartheid wall," a press release by the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee said.
The IDF Spokesman's Unit said that approximately 80 protesters hurled rocks at security forces, who responded with riot dispersal means.
Around 50,000 Palestinian Christians, including 17,000 Catholics, live among 4 million Muslims in the West Bank and in Gaza. They say Israel's checkpoints and separation barrier cut them off from their neighbors and holy places in Jerusalem.
The issue of Palestinian movement restrictions comes to the fore every year in the run-up to Christmas, when tens of thousands of religious tourists make their way to Bethlehem, other parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem to celebrate the birth, life and death of Jesus.
When it comes to Bethlehem, a city of 25,000 just eight kilometers south of Jerusalem, the critical issue is getting foreign tourists past Israel's separation wall and checkpoints and convincing them to stay the night.
Many now choose to stay in Jerusalem and make a day trip. Palestinian officials say the growth of Israeli settlements - there are now 22 around Bethlehem - is steadily strangling access, prompting tourists to stay away.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal, will leave Jerusalem in the head of a festive motorcade towards Bethlehem, where he will lead Christmas Eve mass in the Church of Nativity.
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