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In Bethlehem, Christmas Eve Scuffle Caps Tense Year

  • VOA News

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal waves upon his arrival to attend Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2014.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal waves upon his arrival to attend Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Dec. 24, 2014.

Christmas Eve in Bethlehem began less than peacefully Wednesday when a shoving match broke out between a marching band and police during holiday celebrations.

Video of the scuffle shows security forces with batons raised as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, was quickly ushered away from a crowd packing the streets near the Church of the Nativity, said to be built over the birthplace of Jesus.

Palestinian police had increased their presence to 500 officers around the city about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem in anticipation of thousands of Christian pilgrims for the holiday.

Rula Ma'ayah, Palestinian Minister of Tourism, said, "We are expecting until the end of this month to have receive around hundred thousand visitors coming to Bethlehem from all over the world."

Ahead of the Christmas Eve services in Bethlehem, Patriarch Twal, who oversees the Holy Land's Roman Catholic churches, asked for a more tranquil year ahead.

"I hope next time we will get rid of all these walls, and build bridges and shake hands with peace. Peace will only come with justice, we have a just case and it should be resolved," he said. "We hope that 2015 will be more merciful than 2014, which was hard year."

A day earlier, Palestinian demonstrators in Santa Claus suits clashed with Israeli security forces as they marched toward a checkpoint connecting Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

"Today we want to show that we are preparing ourselves to show the whole world the aggression of the Israeli army and the Israeli government, how they are besieging Bethlehem and controlling everything in Bethlehem. And they don't want the Palestinians to be happy, even at Christmas," said Munther Amira, Bethlehem demonstrator.

Violence between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police heightened tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank in recent months, on the heels of a violent 50-day war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel that killed more than 2,000 people.

Sporadic violence has broken out along the Gaza border since an August cease-fire ended the conflict. On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed a Hamas fighter after the army said it came under Palestinian sniper fire that injured a soldier near the Gaza Strip.

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