For the first time in years Bethlehem was packed with foreign Christian tourists for Christmas.
More than seven years of intensified Palestinian terrorism and Israel's efforts to defend against it had turned Jesus' birthplace into an undesirable travel destination. The fighting, coupled with increased Muslim persecution, had also resulted in most of the town's Christian population emigrating to the West.
Tourists who spoke to Israeli media said the renewed, though failing, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had given them a sense of security in visiting Bethlehem this year.
Local hoteliers and shop owners said they hoped booming holiday season marked the end of their long economic drought.
Putting on his "defender of Christianity" hat, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told those gathered at Bethlehem's Manger Square for Christmas Mass that the day was drawing near when the Palestinian Muslim Arabs would declare an independent Muslim state on Israel's biblical heartland.
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