Plans for Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, have come to a premature end as the town remains virtually sealed off from the outside world because of the violence raging in the region.

This West Bank town has been under siege and isolated from the rest of the world since the start of the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, almost two months ago.

Bethlehem is only a ten-minute drive from Jerusalem. But reaching the place is now no easy matter. Foreign tourists who wish to make the journey—and there are almost none willing to do so—have to seek special permission to cross through an Israeli military checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank.

If approval is given by the Israeli soldiers, barricades are temporarily lifted. But the situation in the town is at best bleak and at worst life-threatening. On the main street of Bethlehem almost every shop and restaurant is firmly closed, as they have been since the start of the violence.

The town's mayor, Hanna Nasser, a Roman Catholic, does not believe the situation will improve before Christmas.

Tourists had cancelled their visits and were no longer coming to Bethlehem, he told ENI. He believed that even at Christmas there would be only "a few hundred" people this year instead of the 20,000 or so foreign tourists and worshipers who normally gather in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

On the days that there are no clashes in Bethlehem, it is possible to reach the town's central plaza, Manger Square. The area is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, where tradition holds that Jesus was born. Instead of Christian tourists, angry Islamic activists gather in Manger square for political meetings, an area that had been dressed up to showcase celebrations for the ...

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