Thousands flock to Bethlehem

Palestinians gather in town believed to be Jesus's birthplace to celebrate Christmas.

    Fuad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, attended Wednesday's Bethlehem mass [AFP]

    "But to get to Bethlehem, you have to go through a number of checkpoints, and you also have to brave the elements - it is about to rain here," she said.

    Emma Serienni, a 20-year-old on her first visit from the United States, said: "Going to the checkpoint and the barrier is really crazy. But being here, it is totally worth it."

    Gazan pilgrims

    For pilgrims from the Gaza Strip, the Hamas-run territory under an effective Israeli siege, the trek was still more of a challenge.

    While it would be just a two-hour drive for Gazans under normal circumstances, with all of the coastal strip's border crossings shut by Israeli forces, residents had to apply for permission to travel to the occupied West Bank.

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    Although around 900 Gazans applied, only 300 were allowed to make the trip.

    Mustafa Barghouti, an elected member of the Palestinian parliament, condemned the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip and called on the world to support Palestinians "in the spirit of Christmas".

    Speaking to Al Jazeera at Manger Square, he said: "The message is that while people are trying to celebrate here, the people of Gaza have no food, have no toys for their children, have no electricity, no fuel and no safety.

    "People in Gaza don't have bread, don't have flour. This siege, which is inhuman and unacceptable, should not continue."

    Tourism directly contributes an estimated $480 million a year for the Palestinian economy.

    Bethlehem itself has only recently been able to tempt tourists back to its revered sites.

    The town's tourism collapsed in 2000 after the second Palestinian intifada broke out.

    This Christmas, however, the Palestinian tourism ministry says hotel occupancy is high amid improved security.

    'A big ghetto'

    Violence has decreased significantly in the Palestinian territory in recent years - a result Israel attributes to the four-metre-high concrete wall it has erected around three sides of Bethlehem, cutting it off from Jerusalem.

    Palestinians and visitors have decried the wall as a blight on the once-sacred land.

    Barghouti told Al Jazeera that Bethlehem "is today nothing more than a big ghetto, surrounded by Israel's apartheid wall".

    "In the spirit of Christmas, we must ask the world to stop not paying attention to this place, and look at the reality of the situation, not only of Christians, but of all human beings here in Bethlehem."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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