Israel will ease access to Bethlehem on Sunday with expectations that 20,000 Christian pilgrims will cross into the Palestinian city to participate in Christmas prayers and celebrations. Lt.-Col. Aviv Feigel, head of the District Coordination Liaison (DCL) office, said pilgrims would not need permission from the army to enter the town, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. The military, he said, will also drastically speed up the crossing process which it intends to cut down to five minutes.
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"We are prepared, together with the Palestinian security forces, so the entry will be smooth and quickly," Feigel said Saturday.
He said that both sides had cleaned up and decorated the entrance to Bethlehem. The IDF has invested millions of dollars in fixing up the checkpoint into the city, called Rachel's Crossing after the nearby Rachel's Tomb.
On Sunday, the Latin Patriarch will cross into Bethlehem in a traditional march during which he will be met by Feigel on the Israeli side and by Palestinian security forces inside the West Bank.
Some 20,000 pilgrims, including 400 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip as well as several thousand Israeli Arabs from northern Israel, are expected to cross into Bethlehem on Sunday and Monday.
While noting that the Bethlehem area was not terror free, Feigel said that in the over 10 years since the establishment of the DCL, there has never been a case of Palestinian terror groups attacking a tourist in the city. He said that hoteliers in the city were reporting full capacity.
"There is a Palestinian interest that despite the overall security situation, in Bethlehem those who visit are guaranteed security," Feigel said. "The Palestinians are aware of that the city is their main tourist attraction."
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, while predicting that 300,000 would visit by the end of the year.