Palestinian security forces have been put on an unprecedented high alert for Christmas this year, fearing the Islamic State mounts a terror attack targeting Christian tourists or locations in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Over the past year, ISIS and its supporters have mounted countless terror attacks outside the Islamic State's areas of control in Iraq and Syria, leading the Palestinian Authority to worry radical cells of Salafists in the West Bank, who are affiliated with the ISIS, would target a Christian location like Bethlehem on Christmas.
Palestinian officials told Ynet that the PA's security forces have arrested 16 radical Salafists from the Bethlehem area over the past few days, in an effort to thwart any possible plans of terror attacks over the Christian holidays celebrated in the city - starting with Christmas Eve on Thursday, as well as New Year's Eve on December 31 and the different churches' new year's celebrations that are expected to last until the end of January.
The PA suspects the Islamic State is planning on targeting the masses of tourists arriving in the city for the holidays, Christian residents of the city, or the churches in Bethlehem, by planting explosive devices.
In addition, the Palestinian Authority itself and its institutes could also be a target for attacks as the ISIS supporters operating in the area are part of a radical and unpredictable group.
Earlier this week, the top brass of the PA security forces met in Bethlehem to discuss possible scenarios, following which it was decided to deploy a large number of troops - both undercover and in uniform – to the city, as well as make a list of suspects, some of whom have been put into administrative detention.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has arrested four ISIS supporters in the West Bank. Two of them were vandalizing Christmas decorations in Jenin near the Arab American University, and in the nearby Christian Arab village Zababdeh. Two other ISIS supporters from Tubas were put in administration detention.
Wave of violence clouds Christmas celebrations
Christian faithful from around the world on Thursday descended on Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations, trying to lift spirits on a holiday dampened by months of violence in the area.
The fighting cast a pall over the celebrations. Crowds were thin and hotel rooms were empty. While the annual festivities in Bethlehem's Manger Square went on, other celebrations in the city were canceled or toned down.
"There's lights, there's carols, but there's an underlying sense of tension," said Paul Haines of Cornwall, England, who arrived in Bethlehem following a four-month trek from Rome.
Bethlehem has been a focal point for clashes between IDF troops and Palestinian rioters during a three-month wave of violence that has gripped the region.
The city was quiet on Thursday, although violence raged elsewhere in the West Bank.
Lisette Rossman, a 22-year-old student from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said the violence made her think twice about visiting a friend studying in Jerusalem. She said she was glad she made the trip because "it was one of my dreams to come here."
In Manger Square, local activists placed an olive tree they said was uprooted by the IDF in a nearby village, and surrounded it with barbed wire and decorated it with spent tear gas canisters fired by Israeli troops and photographs of Palestinians killed or arrested in recent violence.
"We're in Bethlehem celebrating Christmas, celebrating the birthday of our lord Jesus Christ. This is the birthplace of the king of peace, so what we want is peace," said Rula Maayah, the Palestinian tourism minister.
In the evening, several thousand people crowded into Manger Square, admiring the town's glittering Christmas tree and listening to holiday music played by marching bands and scout troops. Palestinian vendors hawked coffee, tea and Santa hats. Young children sold sticks of gum.
But at 9pm, traditionally a bustling time of the evening, there were few tourists to drink local wine sold on the square or to eat freshly fried falafel.
As the festivities got underway, Miral Siriani, a 35-year-old publicist from Jerusalem, said she was relieved to get a break from three months of tension that has included numerous attacks in her city.
"I feel safe in Bethlehem," she said.
In recent years, Bethlehem had enjoyed a relative calm and thousands of revelers and pilgrims poured into Manger Square each Christmas. But vendors and hotel owners complained of sagging business this Christmas season.
Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian official, said hotel bookings were down 25 percent from last year, which itself was weak following a war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip several months earlier.
Some Palestinians hoped holiday cheer would replace the gloom. Said Nustas, dressed in a Santa Claus suit, rang a Christmas bell on a narrow asphalt street as he prepared to deliver gifts from a toy store to children nearby.
"The situation is what it is, a war and intifada," Nustas said. "But God willing, we'll overcome it and celebrate."
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal led a procession from his Jerusalem headquarters into Bethlehem, passing through a military checkpoint and past Israel's concrete separation barrier, which surrounds much of the town.
In Bethlehem, Twal wished "peace and love" for all.
Twal led worshippers in a Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born.
In his homily, Twal expressed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Syrian refugees and "victims of all forms of terrorism everywhere," according to a transcript issued by his office. He wished "all inhabitants of the Holy Land" a happy and healthy new year.
"We pray to change the face of the world, that our world be a safe dwelling place and refuge, where justice prevails over rivalry and conflict, mercy over vengeance, charity over hatred," he said.