JERUSALEM (JTA) – Christian Palestinians living in Gaza will be permitted to enter Israel and visit Bethlehem for Christmas.
Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov made the announcement Wednesday, saying that Israel’s gesture is in contrast to the "inhuman cruelty" of Hamas in not allowing Red Cross officials to visit captive soldier Gilad Shalit, who is being held in Gaza.
"I hope that in the spirit of Christmas, the central holiday for Christians worldwide, that Hamas will take steps to free Shalit," Misezhnikov said.
Misezhnikov says he is expecting about 70,000 tourists to visit Bethlehem next week in the days before Christmas.
Meanwhile, Christian leaders met Monday with the commander of the Israeli army’s Civil Administration Bethlehem Coordination and Liaison Office to receive assurances that Christian pilgrims would have no trouble accessing Bethlehem during the Christmas season.
Christmas is marked on Dec. 25 by Western Christians and Jan. 7 by Orthodox sects.
Some 65,000 Christians are expected to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24. Once in Bethlehem, the pilgrims will be under the protection of the Palestinian Authority.
Soldiers have been briefed on the importance of treating the Christian pilgrims with respect, according to Lt.-Col. Eyad Sirhan, the Druse commander in charge of helping the pilgrims, the Jerusalem Post reported.