Members of the clergy wait for the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal during Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Border Police have concluded security preparations to accommodate tens of thousands of Christian tourists from across the globe making pilgrimages to Bethlehem and the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City for the Christmas period.
Standing on the Jerusalem side of Bethlehem’s Rachel’s Tomb checkpoint on a chilly Tuesday afternoon, Border Police Ch.-Supt. Shahar Izhaky said security arrangements for the holiday have been divided into two parts.
“The first part is planning for the thousands of tourists,” said Izhaky, noting that many visitors come up to one month before Christmas and continue visiting both areas over a month after the holiday.
“We’re talking about tens of thousands of people coming to Bethlehem and the Christian Quarter for at least two months, and we have assessed that over 35,000 people will come during Christmas, so we plan throughout the year.
There are a lot of briefings, thinking and ongoing security assessments to ensure the tourists can travel safely and with dignity.”
The second element, Izhaky said, involves securing churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem – notably the Christian Quarter’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity – as well as the many pilgrims traveling back and forth.
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“We provide security for all those traveling to the Old City and Bethlehem, including for the thousands of Christian Palestinians, to ensure they have access,” he said.
“We close off area roads to help them arrive at each destination as quickly as possible, and with a lot of honor and respect. We already had several major groups from India, including over 4,000 visitors last Saturday, who safely walked from Bethlehem to the Christian Quarter.”
Izhaky added that due to improved security in the capital compared to last year, more Christians are expected then in previous years.
“I think they are feeling much safer, and there is a good relationship with the Palestinian Authority’s police force, because they also have a big interest in making sure that Bethlehem is prepared and quiet so as many people as possible can visit,” he said.
While Izhaky said he could not divulge the total number of security personnel dispatched for the ongoing operation, he noted that the Border Police is working in lockstep with the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to ensure nothing is left to chance.
Izhaky added: “It’s about security, but also about respect, so people can travel safely and quickly without problems. We want them to come and enjoy themselves.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said several roads will be intermittently closed to traffic to allow the tens of thousands of Palestinians and visitors to travel unencumbered by unnecessary delays. “We make sure that the maximum amount of visitors can make their way in and out of Bethlehem in the minimal amount of time, without any security- related incidents whatsoever," he said.