Last update - 08:13 19/12/2006
18,000 Xmas pilgrims expected to cross from J'lem to Bethlehem
By Irit Rosenblum, Haaretz Correspondent
The Tourism Ministry will be implementing special arrangements to make it easier for an expected 18,000 pilgrims to cross from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, December 24 and 25.
The steps, which are being taken in cooperation with the police, the Israel Defense Forces and the IDF liaison with the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem, include shuttles to Bethlehem, and more personnel to handle the heavy traffic at the Rachel crossing into Bethlehem. Each pilgrim will also receive a holiday greeting and gift from the Tourism Ministry.
Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog said that in the interest of ensuring freedom of religion, Defense Minister Amir Peretz has approved the passage of 500 Palestinian Christians from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank and that the ministry is also working closely with the private Palestinian tourism sector. "We view pilgrimage as a bridge to peace." Herzog added. "The ministry is doing everything it can to assist believers to obtain the greatest possible access to Christian sites in general and to Bethlehem in particular. Beyond our desire to make things easier for tourists, we are aware of the importance of tourism for Bethlehem and the Palestinian economy and are working in complete cooperation with the the IDF and the police to show maximum consideration for tourists during the holiday."
Among the arrangements for pilgrims wanting to enter Bethlehem are free shuttles every half hour from the Mar Elias Monastery in south Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Staff at the crossing will be beefed up and work around the clock.
Herzog also noted that ahead of Christmas, he had issued special permits for Palestinian tour guides from Bethlehem to guide tour groups in Israel as well.