Christmas in Bethlehem - not so bad after all
With all of the attempts to vilify Israel over its attempts to protect itself against suicide bombers, al-Reuters reports that Christmas in Bethlehem is actually going quite well
this year - except that Israel is arming the 'Palestinian police' again:
Thousands of pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem on Monday for a Christmas mass promoted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Western powers as a chance to highlight the benefits of peacemaking.
The sound of church bells, drums and bagpipes filled Manger Square as religious and political leaders arrived in the town where Christians believe Jesus was born.
Ahead of the festivities, Palestinian security forces, many carrying newly issued rifles, took up positions on the streets of Bethlehem in numbers not seen in years.
It was the third major deployment of Palestinian forces in a West Bank city under a Western-backed security push launched after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.
Israel allowed dozens of Christians from Gaza to travel to Bethlehem to take part in the festivities. [They had to pass through Israel to do that. CiJ]
But this year store owners say they are celebrating their most peaceful -- and profitable -- Christmas in seven years.
"We are more satisfied. The economic situation is getting a little better," said Khaled Msalam, a 42-year-old Bethlehem shop owner. "Still, people have financial trouble and can't afford a lot of our products."
Tourism, the lifeblood of Bethlehem's economy, has improved as Western powers have sought to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas Islamists.
After struggling for years to fill rooms, many Bethlehem hotels are fully booked for Christmas.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair has been trying to improve tourist access and facilities in Bethlehem. The former British prime minister recently stayed overnight in one of the city's best hotels to send a message it is safe.
But local leaders remain cautious; tourism numbers still hover at just 60-70 percent of pre-Intifada levels, and many Western governments still warn against non-essential travel.
That includes the US government, by the way, which for years has told its citizens not to cross the 'green line' (the pre-1967 border).