Bethlehem, Mon 24.12.07, Afternoon

Yael I. and Ilana d. (reporting)

Mar Elias, Bethlehem, Manger Square, Rachel Terminal (CP 300)

From 2:00 till 5:00 PM

We left our car at Mar Elias and boarded a shuttle bus to Bethlehem, courtesy of the Ministry of Tourism. We asked the driver whether everyone could go and he told us that no one checks and that of course Israelis are welcome. A group of about twelve American tourists were with us. At the CP a girl soldier handed out a bag of goodies to every passenger and a letter from the Ministry:

“Dear Pilgrim, The State of Israel is glad that you have decided to celebrate the Christmas Season in the Holy Land. Christian religious leaders in Jerusalem have announced the promotion of pilgrimages to the Holy Land and have signed an appeal to the pilgrims visiting the Holy Land to pray for peace between all nations, thus creating a bridge for peace. Please accept our token of sweets for the Holiday Season. MERRY CHRISTMAS!”

We passed the various well-known graffiti drawings on the wall and Palestinian policemen who waved at our bus. At a square halfway the city many traffic policemen were trying to create some order while a convoy with dignitaries (someone said he saw PM Olmert in the limousine) came from the other side. We were let off at the Central Bus Station and climbed up the street towards Manger Square. The streets were almost closed to traffic and full of people, many children in Santa Claus outfits. Some youngsters on horses were supposedly crusaders. Occasionally a motorcade with oud noise chased everyone to the sidewalk when yet another dignitary was leaving. On Manger Square people crowded along the fences where the parades took place. Some brass bands, some singing groups of choirboys in white smocks and very elaborately dressed fez-capped young men. Then came one large empty car with the Vatican flag apparently waiting for someone to exit the church. A long line of scouts in their neat outfits were marching and playing their instruments. People clapped. Large helium balloons with Xmas figures were everywhere.  We returned to the bus station and didn’t find a shuttle bus and almost decided to take a cab to the terminal (which might have caused us trouble) when the bus arrived. Besides us there was only one young American woman with two babies. She lives in Tantur and asked us how long we hadn’t been in Bethlehem and wished more Israelis would take this opportunity. At the CP the driver was asked how many passengers he had and whether they were tourists before he was allowed to continue. Then he was stopped again a Military Police soldier politely asked whether he was allowed to walk through the bus and then the driver was directed to a large white tent where another Military Police boarded the bus and asked to see our passports. He looked at the passport of the young woman and checked for her visa and when he saw our Id’s he said in Hebrew: “And you are from Israel,” whereupon he left the bus. The driver dropped us next to our car at Mar Elias.

We drove to CP 300 where we were met by Hanna B. and Tamar A. who showed us a large welcoming sign to the pilgrims in various languages (with many spelling mistakes) wishing us warmest Seasons’s Greetings. A woman told us that her 64-year old mother from Beit Jalla is constantly refused an entry permit at the Etzion DCL for no reason. She is only told “Go out, go away!”

Since there was no need for the four of us we continued to Sheikh Sa’ad which will be reported elsewhere.