BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Christian faithful from around the world on Thursday descended on the biblical city of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations at the traditional birthplace of Jesus, trying to lift spirits on a holiday dampened by months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
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 Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters 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. Israeli authorities said three Palestinian assailants were killed as they carried out or tried to carry out stabbing or car-ramming attacks against Israeli security personnel, and a fourth Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli troops, a Palestinian hospital official said. Two Israeli security guards and a soldier were wounded.
Lisette Rossman, a 22-year-old student from Albuquerque, N.M., said the violence had 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 Israeli army 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 9 p.m., 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.
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.