BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Several thousand pilgrims celebrated Christmas Eve in the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Friday, welcoming the new thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations and voicing hopes for peace in the Middle East.
While the crowds were larger than in recent years, the numbers were far smaller than during the boom period of the 1990s, when tens of thousands of people would flood into the West Bank town for Christmas. Many of Friday’s visitors were local Palestinians, and in a cold, bitter rain, shopkeepers lamented that business remained in the doldrums.
Still, there was plenty to be merry about. After four years of fighting, there has been a marked warming of relations between Israel and the new Palestinian leadership since Yasser Arafat died last month.
In a sign of the growing cooperation, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was allowed to join the celebration, where he was greeted by cheering crowds. Israel prevented Arafat from attending the celebration since 2001, accusing him of advocating violence.
“It’s a troubled time in the Middle East, but we live in hope,” said Joyce Maykut, 55, a Canadian lawyer who came from her home in the United Arab Emirates. She said the hopeful atmosphere in the region attracted her to Bethlehem, despite safety concerns.
The celebratory atmosphere in Bethlehem was a welcome contrast to recent years. During the fighting, Bethlehem has been ringed by Israeli checkpoints and a huge separation barrier has been erected.
However, on Christmas Eve, troops handed out candy as they allowed pilgrims, including Palestinians from throughout the West Bank, to pass easily through the roadblocks.
“I’m just delighted to be here,” said Chris Shepherd, 41, of Columbus, Ohio. “It’s absolutely incredible. I’ve just been overwhelmed by the friendliness of people.”
Christian Palestinian children ring bells outside the Church of the Nativity on Friday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.