Christian faithful from around the world on Thursday descended on the biblical city of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations at the traditional birthplace of Jesus, trying to lift spirits on a holiday dampened by months of Israeli-Palestinian violence. The fighting cast a pall. Crowds were thin and hotel rooms were empty. While the annual festivities in Bethlehem's Manger Square went on, other celebrations in the city were canceled or toned down. "There's lights, there's carols, but there's an underlying sense of tension," said Paul Haines of Cornwall, England. Bethlehem has been a focal point for clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters during a three-month wave of violence that has gripped the region. The city was quiet on Thursday, although violence raged elsewhere in the West Bank.
In Manger Square, activists placed an olive tree they said was uprooted by the Israeli army in a nearby village, and surrounded it with barbed wire and decorated it with spent tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops and photographs of Palestinians killed or arrested in recent violence. "We're in Bethlehem celebrating Christmas, celebrating the birthday of our lord Jesus Christ. This is the birthplace of the king of peace, so what we want is peace," said Rula Maayah, the Palestinian tourism minister. In the evening, several thousand crowded into Manger Square, admiring the town's glittering Christmas tree and listening to holiday music. But vendors and hotel owners complained of sagging business this season. A Palestinian official said hotel bookings were down 25% from last year, which itself was weak. Says another: "The situation is what it is, a war and intifada. But God willing, we'll overcome it and celebrate." (Read more Christmas stories.)