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Ongoing Violence Mutes West Bank's Christmas Celebrations


On this Christmas Day, we begin in a place where Christmas is very important - Bethlehem. It is also a place where violence has dampened Christmas celebrations. And we turn to journalist Daniel Estrin, who is on the line from Jerusalem.

Daniel, good morning.


GREENE: So paint us a scene, if you can, of Bethlehem and then remind us why it's so important on this holiday.

ESTRIN: Well, Bethlehem is, you know, the little town of Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, where midnight Mass was held last night, is the spot where Jesus was said to have been born. And every year, thousands and thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come to celebrate there.

GREENE: And Bethlehem is in the West Bank, right? And remind us why that's important.

ESTRIN: Yes, Bethlehem is a city in the West Bank. It's close to Jerusalem. It's also a place that's seen some of the violence that we've been seeing over the last three months in the holy land. Confrontations between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli troops have taken place in Bethlehem.

GREENE: And it sounds like - I mean, that there's been some violence, some Palestinians killed over the last few days, but a real concern that Bethlehem is going to be targeted by extremists timed with the Christmas holiday. What exactly happened, and how was this stopped?

ESTRIN: Yeah, a Palestinian security official says police detained a few Islamic extremists in Bethlehem as a precaution. There were concerns about possible threats during the Christmas season. The official didn't specify what those threats were. Israel radio reported though that there were concerns about potential attacks on Christians and tourists in Bethlehem, and also a Palestinian official says police arrested two Islamic extremists yesterday that were suspected of setting a Christmas tree on fire in a Christian village in the West Bank near the city of Jenin.

GREENE: When you were in Bethlehem sort of as we were getting close to Christmas Day on Christmas Eve, were people able to be celebrating and enjoying this place, or did this really put a damper on things?

ESTRIN: Well, there were crowds. They felt a little thin this year on Christmas Eve. There were fewer international pilgrims and tourists in Manger Square that I noticed. There were a lot of Palestinians - local Palestinians though, who came from all over the West Bank, even many Muslims. I met one Muslim woman, she had her hair covered in a hijab. Her baby was dressed up in a Santa hat. She said people in the West Bank like to celebrate each other's holidays. And a lot of Palestinians told me it felt like a breath of fresh air to come out and celebrate after a very bleak few months.

GREENE: People of all religions coming together - I mean, that sounds pretty special.

ESTRIN: Yeah, I think it's a - it's - maybe you could say it's a rare occurrence when you're looking at the entire region here in the Middle East. But yes, there were Christians and Muslims together taking selfies in front of the large Christmas tree. It was a cause for celebration.

GREENE: We've been speaking with journalist Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, telling us about the scene in Bethlehem, where Christmas celebrations are going on even though there have been concerns of violence and the place being targeted this Christmas Day.

Daniel, thanks very much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.