Peace in Bethlehem invites tourists back

Associated Press
Published December 16, 2007

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Palestinians lit a four-story Christmas tree in this biblical town Saturday, kicking off a holiday season free of fighting with Israel that officials say will bring the most pilgrims since hostilities broke out seven years ago.

Residents of the West Bank town of 30,000 and foreign tourists alike strolled streets Saturday under lights shaped like bells and Santa Claus. Christians count for only a small percentage of Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land, including Bethlehem, but the town believed to be the birthplace of Jesus is one of the few places that Christmas is felt.

Tourism is integral to efforts to bolster the Palestinian economy, which is tattered from years of conflict with Israel. But relative calm in the West Bank this year combined with renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have persuaded some tourists to return.

This season, around 65,000 tourists are expected to visit the traditional site of Jesus' birth, Mayor Victor Batarseh said. That's four times the number in 2005.