BETHLEHEM, West Bank, (Reuters) – Hopes of a rush of pilgrims lifted the mood a little in Bethlehem on Saturday as the town where Christians believe Jesus was born prepared to mark its first Christmas walled from Jerusalem. Christmas celebrations have been muted since a Palestinian uprising began in 2000, but a 10-month-old ceasefire has encouraged a big increase in the number of pilgrims and tourists coming to Bethlehem.
"Things are a bit better than in previous years. All the hotels are booked solid with pilgrims who came to celebrate Christmas," said Mariam Azizeh, 47, manager of the pretty stone-built city”s tourist office.
Israeli authorities estimate the number of Christmas visitors to Bethlehem will double to 200,000 this year.
But pilgrims taking the road from adjacent Jerusalem — the likely path taken by Mary and Joseph in the Christian narrative — cannot miss the biggest change to Bethlehem this year: the completion of an eight-metre (26-feet) concrete wall.
"It presents a psychological problem to those wishing to enter the city. It”s like Berlin before the wall came down," said 26-year-old Brendan Geary from Philadelphia, who had walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Israel erected its internationally condemned barrier inside the West Bank with the avowed aim of stopping Palestinian suicide bombers. Palestinians say that the barrier is a land grab that denies them a viable state.
The World Court has branded the barrier illegal because it loops into occupied land.
Israel”s army has eased restrictions on visitors to allow visits by foreign Christians as well as Palestinian Christians living alongside the Muslim majority.
Palestinians said they were determined to brighten up the city more for Christmas than in recent years, setting up a huge tree and strings of lights. Alongside, fluttered lines of Palestinian flags.
Bethlehem”s tourism dependent economy crashed during the uprising as the city turned into an intermittent war zone.
"This Christmas we are defying the wall, the occupation and the continued Israeli raids into the town," said Bethlehem governor Salah al-Ta”mari.
Internal Palestinian unrest also sounded a sour note before Christmas. A group of militants briefly took over City Hall to demand money and jobs from the Palestinian Authority, adding to concerns that pilgrims would still be wary.
A handful of visitors mingled with dozens of Palestinian policemen at Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians as Jesus”s birthplace. A band of boy scouts beat drums to mark the start of the festivities.
Flickers of sunlight burst through low grey cloud. The meteorological office said that snow was possible, to give Bethlehem its first white Christmas in many years — it rarely resembles the Christmas cards.
Piling high falafel chick-pea snacks from his frying pan, Said Morad said he was disappointed there were not more pilgrims around, though visitors usually arrive later in the day in time for Midnight Mass.
"There is nobody here to buy these delicious falafel," said Morad angrily. "I will dump them in the garbage."