CBNNews.com - BETHLEHEM - About 500 Palestinian Authority (PA ) forces from Ramallah and Jericho were deployed to Bethlehem to provide security for Christian pilgrims during Christmas.
Israel, which retains responsibility for the city's overall security, worked with PA security officials to ensure that the holiday would be safe and enjoyable for visiting pilgrims.
IDF officer Eyad Sirhan, who oversees the coordination with Bethlehem, said every detail of the Christmas preparations was "meticulously discussed by both sides."
It was the merriest Christmas in eight years, both The Associated Press and Reuters news agencies reported.
On Christmas eve, pilgrims hailing from around the world -- England, Italy, India, Canada, and the U.S. -- sang Christmas carols together in Manger Square.
"Jesus was the prince of peace, and He can bring that peace to you," David Bogenrief of Sioux City, Iowa, told children listening to him play the trumpet. "We pray for you," he told them.
PA Minister of Tourism Khouloud Daibes-Abu Dayyeh said they're hoping for as many as 40,000 visitors this Christmas.
Tourism virtually collapsed in the city of Jesus' birth when the second intifada (armed Palestinian uprising) began in September 2000.
Today, Israeli citizens are no longer allowed to visit the PA-controlled city.
"It's been eight years since I last set foot in Bethlehem," wrote Israeli tour guide Hela Crown-Tamir in Wednesday's Jerusalem Post.
"As a Jewish Israeli tour guide, I am forbidden by law to endanger myself and go to this once colorful city," Crown-Tamir wrote.
"Gone are the days when…tourists, pilgrims from around the world, shoppers and Israeli Arabs and Jews came. Gone are the days when you could eat the best falafel and humous in the little stone building across from Rachel's Tomb," she reminisced.
"Today, Bethlehem is a virtual ghost town at night. No one dares venture out. There is no security and no rule of law. Most of the Christians have left, and the few stores and shopkeepers who remain have a hard time making ends meet," she wrote.
In past years, Bethlehem hosted more than a million visitors annually. This year brought 20,000 more pilgrims than in 2007.
Sources: The Associated Press, Reuters, The Jerusalem Post