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Still no rooms in Bethlehem

| December 25, 2010 8:00 PM

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) - The traditional birthplace of Jesus is celebrating its merriest Christmas in years, as tens of thousands of tourists thronged Bethlehem on Friday for the annual holiday festivities in this biblical West Bank town.

Officials said the turnout should be the largest since 2000. Unseasonably mild weather, a virtual halt in Israeli-Palestinian violence and a burgeoning economic revival in the West Bank all added to the holiday cheer.

By nightfall, a packed Manger Square was awash in red, blue, green and yellow Christmas lights. Merrymakers blasted horns, bands sang traditional Christmas carols in Arabic, boy scout marching bands performed and Palestinian policemen deployed around the town to keep the peace. A group of 30 tourists from Papua New Guinea, all wearing red Santa hats, walked around the nearby Church of the Nativity, built on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born.

Bethlehem used to attract tens of thousands of tourists from around the world for Christmas celebrations, but attendance dropped sharply following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.

As the fighting tapered off over the last five years, attendance steadily climbed. The town's 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week, and officials say more hotels are under construction.

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