A record number of international tourists flooded into the “little town of Bethlehem” this holiday season, according to both Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials.
At least 90,000 people poured through the checkpoints into the small PA-controlled town that once was populated by a majority of Christian Arabs. Today, only about 10,000 remain, the rest having been driven out by their Muslim neighbors.
All of Bethlehem’s 24 hotels were fully booked, according to the AFP news service, as the PA economy was given a major infusion of sorely-needed cash.
Despite the packed hotels, however, Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh lashed out at Israel a week ago, complaining that at the end of the day many tourists preferred to return to Jerusalem to spend the night. During a tree-lighting ceremony in honor of the holiday, Batarseh called for international sanctions against the Jewish State, saying it was “the only way.”
Tens of thousands of PA Arabs from the surrounding territories as well as Israeli Arabs were expected to join the festivities. Also arriving were several hundred of the few remaining members of the tiny Christian Arab community in Gaza, another Muslim stronghold.
The Israeli government made special security arrangements to ease restrictions on PA Arab movements through pre-1967 Israel for the holiday. No age limit was set on Christian PA Arab residents of Judea and Samaria who wished to cross into pre-1967 Israel for the duration of the holiday, for instance; those who enter are also permitted to remain until January 20.
In addition, other special measures included expedited procedures at the Bethlehem checkpoint for tourists entering the city, as well as special permits for Christian Arabs in Gaza to enable visits to family and friends in Judea, Samaria and pre-1967 Israel. Additional special visas were issued to hundreds of Christian residents of Arab countries who sought entry to Judea and Samaria for the holiday season.
The holiday brings with it its own special set of security risks. The issues of crowd control and identification of terrorist elements in a throng of tourists – before they can launch an attack – are much more complex during the holiday.