(Communicated by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories - COGAT)
Israel actively supports and protects freedom of worship for every religion. This takes on special significance during this time of year, when, the Civil Administration's District Coordination Liaison (DCL) for Bethlehem works round the clock to ensure a safe environment, smooth access and movement for the many worshippers and tourists who come to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem.
The Christmas season runs from December 24th through January 19th, and includes Catholic and Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Assyrian and Ethiopian Christmas celebrations.
The Bethlehem DCL's primary responsibility is to coordinate with and between the many different actors that all contribute to a successful holiday season. This includes civilian and security Palestinian Authority representatives, religious leaders from the different branches of Christianity, medical services, local tourism industry leaders, and Israeli officials and security forces. Much of the coordination is oriented towards accommodating the increased movement and access needs created by the massive influx of tourists to Bethlehem.
The tourism industry is central to Bethlehem's economy. Last year the holiday season tourism accounted for about 15% of the city's GDP with an estimated $250 million earned during less than a month. So far this year there has been a 10% rise in tourism in Bethlehem (1,179,335 visitors in 2012). Estimates for this year's holiday season are encouraging, with some 300,000 tourists expected to visit. Furthermore, although three new hotels have been built since last Christmas, local businessmen have reported that all 46 Bethlehem hotels are booked to capacity.
This year, as part of the ongoing efforts to support West Bank tourism, Israel bus drivers and tour guides were approved for unrestricted access to Bethlehem and Jericho.
Major Holiday Events:
December 24-25: Catholic and Protestant Christmas Celebrations (Bethlehem)
January 6: Greek Orthodox Christmas Celebration (Bethlehem)
January 8: Franciscan Celebration - 3,000 people expected (Jericho baptismal site)
January 18: Armenian Christmas Celebration. Greek Orthodox Ceremony - 15,000 people expected (Jericho baptismal site)
January 19: Armenian Christmas Celebration. Assyrian Ceremony - 500 people expected (Jericho baptismal site)
January 20: Coptic Celebration - 200 people expected (Jericho baptismal site)
January 22: Armenian Celebration - 500 people expected (Jericho baptismal site)
A central concern, as always, is the safety and security of travelers in the area. The DCL works closely with all the parties involved to create a stable and secure environment for holiday worshipers. More than ten coordination meetings are scheduled throughout this holiday season.
Furthermore, Israeli government and security officials have approved a series of special holiday measures recommended by COGAT. These measures are designed to respond to the needs of the Palestinian Christians from Gaza and elsewhere in the West Bank, and facilitate easy access for holiday pilgrims.
The Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories, Major General Eitan Dangot and the Head of the Civil Administration, Brigadier General Moti Almoz visited and greeted several church leaders and representatives, briefing them on the coordination efforts made in preparation for the scheduled religious ceremonies.
IDF representatives conducted meetings with representatives of the Bethlehem Municipality, the Palestinian Security Forces, international organizations as well as religious representatives, in order to coordinate the preparations for the upcoming ceremonies. The IDF and the Israel Police will reinforce their personnel in the crossings around Bethlehem in order to guarantee a swift and smooth entrance of pilgrims to the city during the holidays.
Measures to be implemented during this season as of December 20, 2012, and are to last until Sunday, January 20, 2013:
- Provision of up to 20,000 visitor permits for Christian Palestinians from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) to visit Israel during the entire season, without limitations on age or marital status.
- 200 permits for Christian Palestinians to travel abroad via Ben Gurion International Airport, following security inspections.
- 300 permits for Christian Palestinians, who reside abroad, to visit the West bank as requested by the Palestinian Authority.
- Provision of permits to conduct tours in Israel for Christian Palestinians from the West Bank, in coordination with the Ministry of Defense and the Israel Police.
- 500 visitor permits for Christian Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to Israel and the West Bank in order to visit their families and participate in religious ceremonies. (Will be provided to minors under the age of 16 and adults over the age of 35, and depending on security clearance)