BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Christians celebrated Bethlehem’s merriest Christmas in eight years Wednesday, with hotels booked solid, Manger Square bustling with families, and Israeli and Palestinian forces cooperating to make things run smoothly.
The festivities in the West Bank town contrasted sharply with Hamas-run Gaza. While revelers in Bethlehem launched pink fireworks from a rooftop, militants fired more than 80 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli towns and villages, sending people scrambling for bomb shelters.
The latest attacks, and an Israeli airstrike on rocket-firers that killed one person and wounded two, appeared to have buried an unwieldy six-month cease-fire that expired last week.
But 45 miles away, outside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, good-natured crowds of pilgrims and townspeople gathered for the midnight Catholic Mass that is the holiday’s highlight.
In Manger Square, vendors hawked roasted peanuts and Santa hats. Many in the square were Muslims who ventured out to enjoy their town’s annual moment at the center of world attention.
“Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe, and it’s like an explosion of love here,” said Stefano Croce, 46, a fashion photographer from Rome.
Bethlehem has suffered from the Israeli-Palestinian fighting of recent years and is now surrounded on three sides by concrete slabs and fences – part of a barrier Israel has built against Palestinian suicide attackers, some of whom came from Bethlehem. The Palestinians see the barrier as a land grab and say it has strangled the town’s economy.
Emigration has cut the town’s Christian population to an estimated 35 to 50 percent of its 40,000 people, compared with 90 percent in the 1950s.
Israel has held peace talks over the past year with the moderate West Bank government of President Mahmoud Abbas, and the spirit of cooperation has allowed Palestinian forces a limited measure of independence in places like Bethlehem, under Israel’s security control.
Eyad Sirhan, the Israeli military officer responsible for coordination in Bethlehem, said this week that he can talk to his Palestinian counterpart any time, “24 hours a day.” Every detail of the holiday preparations was meticulously discussed by the sides, Sirhan said.
• Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is offering season’s greetings to Christians in a British TV address and suggests that if Jesus were alive, he would oppose “bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers” – an apparent reference to the U.S. and its allies.
• A bomb-rigged truck with government license plates exploded in Lahore, Pakistan, killing one person in a heavily guarded neighborhood home to many government officials.
• The newly resigned Iraqi parliament speaker praised the journalist who threw shoes at President George W. Bush and said the Iraqi legislature should have supported him.
The Associated Press