Amid tight security measures, thousands of Christians are expected to attend Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem on Thursday night.
This year’s Christmas festivities are being held under the shadow of the current wave of terrorism that began in early October. On Thursday, four Palestinians were killed in a series of incidents in the West Bank – three in stabbing and car-ramming attacks and one in confrontations with the IDF in Qalandya refugee camp south of Ramallah.
Hundreds of Palestinian policemen and security officers have been deployed in Bethlehem and its surroundings as part of an “unprecedented” security operation to maintain law and order during the celebrations.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah are scheduled to attend the Midnight Mass in the traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem together with dozens of foreign officials from different parts of the world.
Abbas arrived in Bethlehem on Thursday evening accompanied by several senior PA officials.
The Jordanian Minister of Tourism, Nayef Al-Fayez, will also attend the Christmas Eve celebration as a representative of King Abdullah.
Gen. Said Al-Najjar, the PA security commander of Bethlehem, announced that the city was safe and open to all visitors wishing to celebrate Christmas “despite the difficult conditions the Palestinians are living in.”
Fadi Ghattas, spokesman for the Bethlehem Municipality, said that this year’s Christmas celebrations would be limited to religious hymns and “national songs,” as well as the lighting of the Christmas tree in Manger Square, which has been decorated with the colors of the Palestinian flag. He said that the violence was casting its shadow on the celebrations. “We are part of the Palestinian people and we share their pain,” he said.
The owners of restaurants and halls in the city said they cancelled plans to hold Christmas parties because of the security situation. Some described this year’s Christmas as the “worst Christmas in the history of Bethlehem” because of the absence of a large number of tourists and pilgrims.
Sources in the city said that the number of tourists and pilgrims who arrived in Bethlehem this year was lower than previous years. The occupancy rate of the local hotels is estimated at 40%-50% - half of what it would normally be at this time of the year, the sources added.
The PA Ministry of Tourism said that nearly one million tourists visited Bethlehem during 2015. It predicted that only 7,000 tourists would stay in the city for the Christmas Eve celebrations.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal on Thursday led a procession from Jerusalem into Bethlehem, where he is expected to lead worshippers in the Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity. He was received at Manger Square by scores of Palestinians, including senior PA officials.
Ziad Bandak, Abbas’s advisor on Christian affairs, said that this year’s celebrations were aimed at “challenging the occupation’s measures against the Palestinians such as killings, house demolitions and arrests.” He said that the Palestinians were determined to send a message on Christmas Eve that the “occupation must end.” sign up to our newsletter
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