A Palestinian child wearing a Santa Claus costume outside the Latin Church in Gaza City as Palestinian Christians attend Sunday mass led by the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal, ahead of Christmas, in Gaza, on December 16, 2012. Christmas Celebrations are underway in Bethlehem as thousands of pilgrims are expected to flock to the biblical town for Christmas.. UPI/Ismael Mohamad | License Photo
JERUSALEM, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- Israel has taken steps to aid Palestinian Christians during the Christmas holiday season, the Israeli Defense Ministry said.
Starting Thursday, 20,000 visitor permits will be issued allowing West Bank Palestinians to enter Israel. Israeli officials also issued 200 permits to Palestinians wishing to travel abroad via Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, the Defense Ministry and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said.
Another 300 permits are to be issued to Christian Palestinians who live abroad and wish to visit the West Bank. Permits will also be given to operators conducting tours in Israel for West Bank Palestinians, the ministry said.
Five hundred permits will be issued to Palestinian Christians living in the Gaza Strip to enter Israel and the West Bank. The permits for Gazans will be issued to adults over the age of 35 and minors up to the age of 16, the ministry said.
The Israeli army and Israel police will have an increased presence at West Bank crossings. Israeli officials said this was to ensure swift and smooth passage into Bethlehem.
The steps will remain in effect until Jan. 20 and were coordinated with church leaders and Bethlehem municipality officials, the ministry said.
A statement issued by Israel's Tourism Ministry this week said about 75,000 tourists are expected to visit Israel during the Christmas season. Palestinian officials estimate 300,000 people will visit Bethlehem during the holiday season.
The ministry said it will offer free shuttle bus service between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to accommodate visitors. The service runs from noon Christmas Eve until noon Christmas Day.