Hundreds of Palestinians and pilgrims gathered outside Bethlehem's Church of Nativity on Saturday to attend the traditional lighting of a giant Christmas tree.
The annual event takes place at the beginning of December in the West Bank town believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. It marks the start of holiday festivities, during which thousands of pilgrims flock to Bethlehem.
The tree is 15-meter (50 feet) high and is placed outside the church of Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born. The crowd applauded and cheered as it was illuminated with colorful lights.
"Lighting the tree today in Bethlehem marks the beginning of the (Christmas) season and announces the start of celebrations. We miss celebrating in this land, our land suffers from a lot of problems but the tree means joy for old and young people in this land and we wish everyone a Merry Christmas," Issa Alshakri of Bethlehem told Reuters Television after the ceremony.
"The tree is a symbol of love and peace and I hope that everyone in the world and in Palestine specifically can live in peace. We are experiencing now an unstable political situation but we hope that the future will be better and lighting the tree is a symbol of hope, love and peace and I hope that all the world will live in love and peace," added Michlean Alyateem, a resident of neighboring Beit Jala.
This year, traditional Christmas celebrations will take place in the shadow of an ongoing surge of violence between Israel and Palestinians.
More than two months of Palestinian knife attacks, car-rammings and occasional shootings have killed 19 Israelis and a US citizen. Israeli forces have killed 102 Palestinians in the same period, of whom 63 were identified by Israel as assailants or caught on camera carrying out assaults. Most others were killed in clashes with police or the military.
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