Over 1.5 million tourists flock to Bethlehem for Christmas

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Around one and a half million tourists have visited the West Bank city of Bethlehem so far, with thousands more expected to arrive in the coming days for Christmas celebrations,

Over 1.5 million tourists flock to Bethlehem for Christmas

BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Around one and a half million tourists have visited the West Bank city of Bethlehem so far, with thousands more expected to arrive in the coming days for Christmas celebrations, city officials said Saturday.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists, including Palestinian Christians, began to arrive in the city early Saturday and gathered around the historic Church of Nativity to join the midnight mass.

Under the Western calendar, Christmas celebrations in the city would continue until Jan. 7, 2012.

Bethlehem governor Abdel Fattah Hamayel told Xinhua Saturday that this year had witnessed a slight increase of tourists who came to the city to celebrate Christmas.

The governor’s office estimates that the number of tourist arrivals in Bethlehem has reached almost one and a half million so far this year, mostly from Europe, he said.

Hamayel said his office has put in place tight security measures for Christmas holidays.

There will be different shows presented by Arab and foreign bands during the period, “in addition to the joy and happiness the tourists will have amid hopes that the new year will be a year of peace and prosperity for the Palestinians and for the world’s people,” he said.

Hamayel complained of Israeli security measures and military raids in the city.

“This year Israel has increased its security measures and increased the restrictions and obstacles which aim to disturb the joy of the Palestinians and foreign tourists, (and) which have certainly restricted the number of visitors to the city,” he said.

Over the past few days, Israeli army forces were storming the city at night backed by armored vehicles, Hamayel said, adding that Israeli soldiers also increased the number of roadblocks and checkpoints around the city.

In a statement issued earlier in the day, Bethlehem Police said it had finalized the preparations to guarantee security in the city. It added that 500 police officers have been deployed to the city’s main streets to arrange the traffic and restore calm.

A number of high-ranking Palestinian officials will be in Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, according to city officials.

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