BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Palestinian children set off firecrackers and vendors sold nuts and corn on the cob Tuesday as pilgrims and Palestinians thronged Bethlehem's Manger Square for Christmas Eve celebrations tempered by tensions with Israel.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a Muslim, was greeted by a boy dressed as Santa Claus when he arrived from peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two leaders failed to reach an agreement on Israel's long-delayed pullout from nearby Hebron and planned to meet again on Christmas.
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, who heads the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, drove to Manger Square in a motorcade along roads brimming with Christmas lights and colorful decorations. Manger Square is the biblical birthplace of Jesus.
This year marks the second Christmas in Bethlehem under Palestinian rule. But unlike last year's Christmas Eve, which turned into a joyous national celebration, Tuesday's somewhat subdued atmosphere reflected recent delays and setbacks in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
"Last year there was a lot of hope because the redeployment (from Bethlehem) was so close to Christmas," said Stephanie Tashkoff, a 29-year-old from Colac, Australia, who has spent almost two years in the area.
"This year people are trying to be hopeful, but it's hard with the closure," she added, referring to Israel's border restrictions that have prevented most Palestinians from entering the Jewish state and made it difficult to enter autonomous Palestinian areas.
Still, there was consensus that this year represented a marked improvement over the 28 Christmases the city spent under Israeli occupation.
"A few years ago it was difficult with the Israeli army, there were checkpoints every step of the way. ... It was hard to get up to the church," said Susan Nahhas from Mansfield, Ohio. Nahhas is married to a Palestinian emigre and is celebrating her third Christmas in Bethlehem.
Buildings in Manger Square were adorned with Palestinian flags. A white banner hung across the entrance to the square said: "The King of Peace is Born." Another portrayed Arafat wishing members of his Fatah party a happy new year.
Loudspeakers played "Jingle Bells" sung in English and Arabic, and fireworks were set off from the roof of the municipality.
Arafat's wife, Soha, watched the festivities and waved to crowds of visitors from the balcony of the main police station, which was draped in a Palestinian flag.
Absent from the Bethlehem festivities was longtime mayor Elias Freij, who was hospitalized earlier this week in Jerusalem with a mild case of pneumonia.
In the morning, a parade of Boy Scouts played bagpipes, beat marching drums and carried Palestinian flags. Choirboys in black robes, red sashes and white smocks filed out of the Church of the Nativity, while calls to prayer from mosques resounded through the city.
Later, 10 groups, including three from the United States, were to sing Christmas carols from a stage decorated with an artificial Christmas tree.
"It's fantastic. It is absolutely a life-changing experience," said Patrick Kavanaugh, 42, of Washington.