bethlehem churches 88.
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Israel will ease access to Bethlehem during the upcoming Christmas celebrations in a "calculated risk" intended to let Christian pilgrims worship the holiday freely in the West Bank town, security officials said Monday.
IDF Lt. Col. Aviv Feigel said pilgrims will not need permission from the army to enter the town, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. The military will try to speed the process by not checking every tourist bus, but conducting spot checks of random buses instead, he said.
Arab Israelis and Christian Palestinians will be allowed to drive into Bethlehem, and Palestinian Christians will be allowed into Israel to visit family, the officer said.
"We are taking a calculated risk by easing steps and that is because we are well aware of the importance of Bethlehem," Feigel told reporters.
The restrictions are to be eased starting December 24 until Armenian Christmas on January 18, he said.
Bethlehem is located minutes south of Jerusalem.
Palestinian officials complain that the checkpoints and the security fence Israel is building in the West Bank - cutting Bethlehem off from Jerusalem - will hinder tourists from visiting Bethlehem. A new checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, operating since November 15, has not reduced the number of tourists, he said. Its purpose is to ensure a balance between Israel's security needs and the access for Christians to Bethlehem, he said.
Recent Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem have been subdued because of five years of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis. At the height of the fighting in the spring of 2002, after armed terrorists took sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity, the IDF shut down the town.
The number of visitors increased last year as violence decreased, and even more were expected this year, with stronger cooperation between the two sides. Town officials are planning an open-air Christmas market. Over the weekend, workers set up small stages for dances and choirs in the town of 30,000.
Some 250,000 pilgrims came to the city since January 2005, compared to 100,000 in all of 2004, Feigel said.
But Feigel said the quiet in Bethlehem is misleading, and security threats continue. Half of the Israeli terror fatalities in 2004 came from attackers who entered Jerusalem from Bethlehem, he said.
Just last Thursday, a car bomb filled with cans of gasoline was discovered and disarmed by security forces near Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, on Thursday afternoon, the IDF reported. The army suspects the vehicle was intended to be detonated on the Bethlehem bypass road (the tunnels road) connecting Jerusalem to Gush Etzion. A Palestinian tipster informed security forces about the bomb, and sappers succeeded in neutralizing it.