BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Thousands of scouts, tourists and locals will celebrate Christmas Eve in the historic city of Bethlehem on Monday, gathering outside Nativity Church.
The city has been decorated and a huge tree is standing in Manger Square, with thousands of colorful lights and a 150 centimeter star on top. The tree was lit on Dec. 15 by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and political and religious leaders.
It is Bethlehem's first Christmas since Palestine was admitted to the United Nations as a non-member state.
Minister of Tourism Rula Maayah told Ma’an that 15,000 tourists were expected to join Christmas celebrations this year. Bethlehem hotels are fully booked, she added.
Terrasanta scout group leader George Zughbi said around 3500 scouts representing 27 groups from across the West Bank would take part in the celebrations. A group from Jaffa, a Palestinian city in Israel, also will join the festival, he added.
Scout groups from the Gaza Strip hoped to attend but Israeli authorities refused them permission to enter the West Bank, Zughbi added.
Israel granted 557 Christians in Gaza permission to spend Christmas in Bethlehem, the Palestinian liaison department said. Palestinian officials at Erez crossing said 200 Christians left Gaza on Monday morning.
For the first time, Israel granted Christians multiple-entry permits allowing them to travel back and forth between Gaza and the West Bank from Dec. 24 to Jan. 8, crossing officials told Ma'an.
In Bethlehem, Police director Alaa Shalabi said officers were ready to keep order. A team of 15 paramedics, seven ambulances and a mobile clinic with 100 volunteers will be on hand in Manger Square, Red Crescent director Abdul-Halim Jaafari told Ma'an.
President Mahmoud Abbas will arrive on Monday afternoon and attend Midnight Mass at the Nativity Church. Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judah will also attend on behalf of King Abdullah II.