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Israel, Palestinians Gear Up for Christmas in Bethlehem

A Palestinian man dressed as Santa Claus stands near a car as he hands out Christmas presents to children in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, ahead of Christmas, 20 Dec 2010

The West Bank town of Bethlehem, where the Bible says Jesus Christ was born, is gearing up for Christmas festivities.

Bethlehem preparing for tourist boom

Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem are taking place in a rare spirit of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Tourism is booming thanks to a lull in violence. About 90,000 tourists are expected during the holiday season, 30 percent more than last year.

Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov. "Tourism is a bridge to peace and dialogue; and successful cooperation is in the common interest of Israelis and Palestinians alike," Meseznikov states.

Travel restrictions eased

Israel has eased travel restrictions for the holiday, facilitating passage from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which is under Palestinian rule in the West Bank. Israeli General Eitan Dangot. "Many thousands of tourists will be allowed to enter to the West Bank much more easier and also to go back to their destinations. And there is no limitations of Christians from the West Bank to visit their relatives in Israel," he said.

The Israeli measures won rare praise from Palestinian Christians, including Bishop Naim Khoury of Bethlehem. "I think they did a fantastic job helping people," he says, "And I think that takes some pressure off. And I think it is a big, big relief. I am so thankful for their thoughtfulness concerning that."

Boost to economy, but what about freedom?

The boom in tourism has given a big boost to the Bethlehem economy. But the city is surrounded by Israel's separation wall, and Palestinians say that has turned Bethlehem into a prison.

Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh says prosperity cannot replace freedom. "We want to have our right to self-determination, our right to have our viable Palestinian state on part of our historical Palestinian land with Jerusalem as its capital," he said.

Israel built the wall in response to a wave of suicide bombings, but Palestinians say it is a symbol of another Christmas under occupation.

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