Modern-day Bethlehem: A holy and hot spot for clashes

Christians worldwide are about to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. In the hills outside Bethlehem, some ways of life haven't changed much, as a shepherd tends to his flock in a scene reminiscent of biblical times.

Not far away in the heart of modern Bethlehem's densely-packed town center, the Church of the Nativity marks what the faithful celebrate as Jesus' birthplace. Inside the church, filing down into the grotto where it's said that manger once was, CBS News correspondent Seth Doane met a group of Americans.

Karen McCarty, who made her pilgrimage from Fort Worth, Texas, got teary singing a Christmas carol.

"I'm a follower of Jesus – and it's very special to be where he was born," McCarty said. It was an added bonus, she said, to visit during the holiday season.

Bethlehem today is Palestinian. Over the years, it's been ruled by Ottomans, British, Jordanians and Israelis – and that culture mix pours onto the street. There's chicken shawarma and falafel, trinkets for tourists, and one unlikely stop for some pilgrims: a tattoo shop.

Christian tattoo artist Walid Abouayash said he's drawn thousands of crosses. William Hanna from Southern California told us why he is getting his.

"To show all of my friends – look what I did, look where I went – look what I have," Hanna said.

It's a permanent way to mark a pilgrimage.

"It's something like holy," Abouayash said.

"Making a tattoo?" Doane asked.

"Yeah, in a holy place, in Bethlehem," he said.

It's holy and a hot spot for clashes between Palestinians and Israelis, which we witnessed reporting there last year. Tempers flared in the wake of the U.S. decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem, which neighbors Bethlehem but is sealed off from it. 

One prominent feature of the modern Bethlehem landscape is the giant separation barrier which Israel started building in 2002 as a security measure – effectively cutting off the Palestinian territories from Israel.

Banksy, the secretive British street artist, developed the Walled Off Hotel which advertises the "world's worst view." It's both a place to stay and political statement.  

"We try to protest the wall through our hotel," hotel manager Wisam Salsaa said.

Salsaa grew up here. He pointed to where Banksy painted angels trying to pull the wall apart. Inside the hotel, the artist's work continued to provoke.

We asked if, by using violence, Palestinians made this barrier necessary.  

"I think more oppression raises the chance of violence in the future," Salsaa said.

Gazing out at the separation barrier, Belgian tourists told us they were drawn to Bethlehem by the contemporary art, but were pulled in by something more. 

"To come here is like opening door because – I'm not really religiously minded – but here I think you can feel a little bit of the history," tourist Bjorn Lindacker said. "I think I feel the… roots must be coming from here."

There was certainly was a distinctive spirit "in the air" at Bethlehem's Christmas tree lighting – a modern mix of cultures and traditions.