'Santas' wearing gas masks attack Jesus' birthplace on Christmas week; fears of new Palestinian uprising mount

A Palestinian protester uses a sling to hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes, near Israel's Ofer Prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah on Dec.25, 2015.Reuters

The season of joy turned into a season of woe at the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ when "Santas" wearing gas masks launched fierce attacks beginning on Thursday, Christmas Eve, up to the weekend in the West Bank as Bethlehem was filled with tourists celebrating the birth of Christ, reports said.

Israeli forces shot dead two Palestinians who stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier in the occupied West Bank on Sunday, the army said, in the latest attack in 12 weeks of heightened violence, according to Reuters.

Nearly daily Palestinian stabbings, car-rammings and shooting attacks have killed 20 Israelis and a U.S. citizen, sparking fears of a new Palestinian uprising a decade after the last one subsided.

On Thursday, Christmas Eve, 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. A fourth Palestinian was also killed in clashes with Israeli troops that same day, WND reported.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the fourth Palestinian died in the Qalandiya refugee camp after security forces engaged a "violent mob" throwing firebombs. The man was reportedly hit in the head by live fire.

The stabbing incidents, which wounded the two guards "moderately'' happened in the Ariel settlement, while the second attack involved a motorist attacking Israeli troops, Samri said.

Elsewhere, a knife-wielding Palestinian man also wounded two Israeli border police officers at the entrance to Jerusalem's Old City. The attacker stabbed an officer in the neck and wound the other at the Lion's gate in east Jerusalem before fleeing, UK's Daily Mail reported.

Last week, angry Muslims also threw rocks and firebombs on Israeli soldiers near the separation wall in the West Bank, reports said.

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. Authorities said that attacks by Palestinians, mostly stabbings and shootings, have killed 20 Israelis, while Israeli fire has killed 124 Palestinians, 85 of whom are believed to be attackers. The rest were reportedly killed in clashes with Israeli forces.

Israel accuses Palestinian leaders of inciting violence while the Palestinians say it is the result of the nearly 50 years of military occupation.

In Manger Square, local activists placed an olive tree they said was uprooted by the Israeli army in a nearby village. They 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, Yahoo! News reported.

"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, according to Fox News.

Despite the violence, annual festivities in the city's Manger Square were not postponed or cancelled, the news outlet reported.

"This is the first year in more than 10 years, possibly 15 according to one of our engineers, that Palestinian officials denied our crew permits to get across the border into the West Bank and Bethlehem. That's an example of the ongoing political tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians," Fox News' John Huddy said Thursday.

Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority of encouraging violence after he urged Muslims to defend the Jerusalem holy site "by all means.''