(photo credit: AP)
Israeli and Palestinian authorities are coordinating the arrival of 60,000 Christian tourists to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem and other holy sites next week.
The Tourism Ministry, together with representatives of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, described at a press conference Tuesday in Jerusalem special preparations being made for Christmas (December 25) and the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha, which begins Wednesday.
Almost 10,000 permits to stay in Israel for a period of two to four weeks have recently been distributed to both Christian and Muslim residents of the Palestinian territories who plan to visit family members during the holiday season and attend Christmas masses in Nazareth, said Lt.-Col. Camil Whbee, head of the District Coordination Office in Bethlehem Tuesday. This number includes 500 Christians and 400 Muslims from Gaza.
He added that more permits will be given during the next days and that there was no limitation on the number of permits aside from security considerations.
Whbee said that lifting of restrictions includes easing the passage of Arab Israelis, Christian tourists, and foreign and local press into Bethlehem and other sites in the PA with their vehicles during the holiday.
Whbee stressed that all policemen and soldiers posted in the checkpoints were briefed regarding the lifting of restrictions, or will be briefed soon, and will operate accordingly.
"We have been told that the PA police will be present and in charge of the order inside Bethlehem and at the Church of the Nativity. We hope the cooperation will be efficient," said Whbee. "Unfortunately, there are always alerts on terrorist activity, but we hope people will not take advantage of the lift of restrictions in order to execute terror attacks."
Israel Police's preparations to secure the tourist sites during the holiday season will be published in the coming days.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli and Palestinian senior officials will attend the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during the holiday.
According to Shaul Tzemach, director-general of the Tourism Ministry, on December 24-25 the Bethlehem checkpoint will operating with reinforced manpower to ease and shorten passage into the city. The Bethlehem checkpoint will be working for 24 hours straight.
Shuttles from the Mar Elias monastery in Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity in will be leaving every 30 minutes starting from noon December 24 and continuing until noon December 25 for the benefit of visitors.
Representatives of the Tourism Ministry will welcome the arrivals at the monastery with sweets and information booklets in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch instructed the tourism chambers in Jerusalem and Nazareth to prepare for decoration, cleaning, and manpower reinforcement during the holiday.
A traditional reception will be held on Monday, 5:30-7 p.m., at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth for the heads of churches and mayors of northern towns, at which Aharonovitch will be present as well.
Further assistance and information may be received from the Tourism Ministry hotline: (02) 645-6002.
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