Israel to ease restrictions on Palestinians during holiday period

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Restrictions will be eased on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza during the holiday season.

The Israel Defense Forces and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories announced that the Palestinians will have freer movement for the Christmas holiday season, which began on Wednesday and ends on Jan. 20, 2013.

Israeli church leaders and representatives were briefed Wednesday on the coordination efforts being made in preparation for their scheduled religious ceremonies.

Up to 20,000 Christian Palestinians from the West Bank will be allowed to visit Israel with no restrictions, and 200 Christian Palestinians will be permitted to travel abroad from Ben Gurion International Airport.

Some 300 Christian Palestinians who live in other countries will be permitted to visit the West Bank, and permits will also be issued to allow Christian Palestinians to tour in Israel.

In addition, some 500 Christian Palestinians from Gaza will receive permits to visit their families and participate in religious ceremonies in the West Bank, though age restrictions will be placed on them. 

This year, through November 2012, approximately 1,179,000 tourists entered the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a 10 percent increase over 2011, according to security sources.

Three new hotels were built in Bethlehem, and three additional hotels are currently under construction, in addition to the 46 other hotels that already exist. According to Palestinian tourism officials, more than 300,000 visitors are expected to visit Bethlehem during the holidays, and the hotels in the city are already completely booked.

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thursday visited the official residence of Archbishop Elias Chacour in Haifa, where he sang traditional Christmas songs with the a children’s choir from a Christian Arabic school.

In a greeting to Christians in Israel and around the world, the president said: "It is for me a privilege, as president of the State of Israel, to send profound wishes on behalf of all of Israel for a Happy Christmas to the whole Christian world and to express the hope that the Middle East may enter an era of peace and prosperity. The State of Israel is committed to protecting all the holy sites and the freedom of worship for everyone."

"We are proud of the Christian community in Israel and are also proud that they feel fully at home, completely free to worship in their own way and to continue with their own traditions," he added. "I wish them and all Christians everywhere a Merry Christmas."

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