Thousands of visitors are expected to descend upon Bethlehem this Christmas as it rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic.
Tourism is the economic lifeblood of this town in the occupied West Bank, the birthplace of Jesus, but pandemic restrictions for the past two years have kept visitors away.
This year, visitors are back, hotels are full and shopkeepers have reported brisk business in the run-up to the holiday.
“We are celebrating Christmas this year in a very much different way than last year,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah. “We’re celebrating Christmas with pilgrims coming from all over the world.”
Police were erecting barricades in Manger Square on Christmas Eve, as marching bands played drums and bagpipes, and tourists snapped selfies with the town’s large Christmas tree.
Latin patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, was expected to arrive from nearby Jerusalem to greet well-wishers. Later, he was to celebrate midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
In Manger Square, banners depicting images of Palestinian prisoner Nasser Abu Hamid were also on display.
The veteran prisoner died of cancer last week in an Israeli prison clinic after spending some 20 years behind bars for his conviction in the deaths of seven Israelis.