Bethlehem Xmas 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The IDF began scaling back its operations in Bethlehem and the city's outlying areas on Sunday ahead of the expected arrival of more than 60,000 Christian pilgrims to the city in the next few days to participate in Christmas celebrations.
Thousands of pilgrims and tourists began crossing from Jerusalem into Bethlehem on Sunday and the IDF said that it would pull its forces out of the city and suspend operations there. Central Command sources said the IDF usually enters Bethlehem every night to search for wanted terror suspects.
"We do not want to ruin the tourism industry and want to allow the Palestinians the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from the holiday season," said a top officer from the IDF's Judea and Samaria Division.
Instead of hunting down terror suspects, forces from the IDF's Etzion Brigade will guard the entranceway to Bethlehem and will coordinate security developments there with Palestinian Authority security forces.
Some 340,000 tourists have crossed from Israel into Bethlehem since the beginning of the year, in comparison to the 200,000 who visited the city in 2006.
Palestinians estimate that by the end of the year 400,000 tourists will have visited Bethlehem.
To get to Bethlehem, tourists must cross through a large army checkpoint - called Checkpoint 300 - at Israel's West Bank security barrier.
The area was the scene of violent gunfights during the peak of the second intifada.
The Tourism Ministry has spent thousands of dollars on decorations to make tourists feel more welcome, and workers at visitor centers will hand out candy and welcome letters to the pilgrims.
While the IDF will scale back its operations over the next few days, the officer said it was possible that a lone Palestinian terrorist would try to ruin the festive atmosphere by perpetrating an attack in the city.
"Nothing can ensure this won't happen," the officer said, adding that overall the PA's interest was to maintain peace and quiet in the city during this tourist season.
Israel is allowing 500 Christians from the Gaza Strip to enter Israel and the West Bank for up to one month during the Christmas season.
AP contributed to the report.
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