Bethlehem, West Bank — Christians celebrated Bethlehem’s merriest Christmas in eight years Wednesday, with hotels booked solid, Manger Square bustling with families and Israeli and Palestinian forces cooperating to make things run smoothly.
The festivities in the West Bank town contrasted sharply with Hamas-run Gaza. While revelers in Bethlehem launched pink fireworks from a rooftop, militants fired more than 80 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli towns and villages, sending people scrambling for bomb shelters.
The latest attacks, and an Israeli air strike on rocket-firers that killed one person and wounded two, appeared to have buried an unwieldy six-month cease-fire that expired last week.
But 45 miles away, outside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, good-natured crowds of pilgrims and townspeople gathered for the midnight Catholic mass that is the holiday’s highlight.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal said in an address during the late-night service that true security comes from God.
“War does not produce peace, prisons do not guarantee stability. The highest of walls do not assure security,” said Twal, the Catholic Church’s top cleric in the Holy Land. “Peace is a gift of God, and only God can give that peace.”
Pope Benedict XVI also spoke of peace between Israelis and Palestinians during Midnight Mass at the Vatican.
“Let us think also of the place named Bethlehem, of the land in which Jesus lived, and which he loved so deeply,” said Benedict, who is expected to visit the Holy Land in May. “Let us pray that peace will be established there, that hatred and violence will cease. Let us pray for mutual understanding, that hearts will be opened, so that borders can be opened.”
Earlier in Bethlehem, a dozen pilgrims from India, Canada, Britain, the U.S. and other countries sang impromptu renditions of Christmas carols. David Bogenrief, 57, of Sioux City, Iowa, played the trumpet.
“Jesus was the prince of peace, and he can bring that peace to you. We pray for you,” Bogenrief told a gaggle of children who gathered to listen.
In Manger Square, vendors hawked roasted peanuts and Santa hats. Many in the square were Muslims out to enjoy their town’s annual moment at the center of world attention.
Bethlehem has suffered from the Israeli-Palestinian fighting of recent years, and is now surrounded on three sides by concrete slabs and fences — part of a barrier Israel has built against Palestinian suicide attackers, some of whom came from Bethlehem. The Palestinians see the barrier as a land grab and say it has strangled the town’s economy.