Palestinians beef up Bethlehem security amid fears of IS attack
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Palestinians beef up Bethlehem security amid fears of IS attack

16 radical Salafists detained by PA security as Christians flock to biblical town for holidays, but turnout lower than usual

Palestinian security forces and military medical services stand guard outside the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2015. (AFP/Musa al-Shaer)
Palestinian security forces and military medical services stand guard outside the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2015. (AFP/Musa al-Shaer)

The Palestinian Authority was reportedly concerned that Salafists aligned with the Islamic State would attempt to perpetrate an attack in Bethlehem, as thousands of Christian pilgrims flocked to the West Bank city for the holidays.

Seeking to thwart an attack, PA security forces placed 16 radical Islamists in administrative detention without charge, according to an Israel Radio report.

Palestinian security was beefed up throughout the city in anticipation of an attempted shooting or bombing attack on tourists and Palestinian Christians, the report said.

The Palestinian security forces were said to have received concrete threats of an attack by IS-linked militants.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) attends a Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on December 25, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/ Fadi Arouri/ POOL / AFP / POOL / FADI AROURI)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) attends a Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 25, 2015. (AFP/Fadi Arouri/Pool)

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 over the celebrations. 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, who arrived in Bethlehem following a four-month trek from Rome.

The city was quiet on Thursday, although violence raged elsewhere in the West Bank. Israeli authorities said three Palestinian assailants were killed as they carried out, or tried to carry out, stabbing or car-ramming attacks against Israeli security personnel, and a fourth Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli troops, a Palestinian hospital official said. Two Israeli

Clergymen march in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2015.(AFP PHOTO/ MUSA AL SHAER / AFP / MUSA AL-SHAER)
Clergymen march in Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2015.(AFP/Musa al-Shaer)

security guards and a soldier were wounded.

In Manger Square, local 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 people crowded into Manger Square, admiring the town’s glittering Christmas tree and listening to holiday music played by marching bands and Scouts troops. Palestinian vendors hawked coffee, tea and Santa hats. Young children sold sticks of gum.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal (C) greets the crowd outside the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2015.(AFP PHOTO/ MUSA AL SHAER / AFP / MUSA AL-SHAER)
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal (center) greets the crowd outside the Church of the Nativity as Christians gather for Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on December 24, 2015.(AFP/Musa al-Shaer)

But at 9 p.m., traditionally a bustling time of the evening, there were few tourists to drink local wine sold on the square, or to eat freshly fried falafel.

In recent years, Bethlehem had enjoyed a relative calm, and thousands of revelers and pilgrims poured into Manger Square each Christmas. But vendors and hotel owners complained of sagging business this Christmas season.

Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian official, said hotel bookings were down 25 percent from last year, which itself was weak following a war between Israel and Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip several months earlier.

Some Palestinians hoped holiday cheer would replace the gloom. Said Nustas, dressed in a Santa Claus suit, rang a Christmas bell on a narrow asphalt street as he prepared to deliver gifts from a toy store to children nearby.

“The situation is what it is, a war and intifada,” Nustas said. “But God willing, we’ll overcome it and celebrate.”

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters into Bethlehem.

In Bethlehem, Twal wished “peace and love” for all.

Twal led worshipers in a Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.

In his homily, Twal expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Syrian refugees and “victims of all forms of terrorism everywhere,” according to a transcript issued by his office. He wished “all inhabitants of the Holy Land” a happy and healthy New Year.

“We pray to change the face of the world, that our world be a safe dwelling place and refuge, where justice prevails over rivalry and conflict, mercy over vengeance, charity over hatred,” he said.

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