Israeli Moshe Gabai, 27, admits he has mixed feelings leading tour groups through Bethlehem. Until recently, he had only been to the occupied West Bank on military patrols.

“When you drive through the streets you see pictures of terrorists, of ‘martyrs’ who blew themselves up,” he says.

On the other hand, he also meets more and more Palestinians who are interested in closer ties with Israelis.

Since the start of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in 2000, the military has barred Israeli citizens from all parts of the West Bank that are controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

But following a long period of calm in the region, the army has now begun to relax some of the restrictions.

Last month, some 50 Israeli guides and bus drivers were given permits to take tour groups to the biblical city of Bethlehem and to Jericho, which is known as the longest continuously inhabited city and the lowest on earth.

The Palestinian Authority has welcomed the move, saying it proves that it has succeeded in improving security in the territory under its control.

To get through the military checkpoint at the entrance of Bethlehem, Mr Gabai calls the army about two hours ahead, and also lets them know once he and his group are on the way.

Until now, Bethlehem had been off-limits to Mr Gabai, who leads trips all over the rest of the Holy Land.

“It always caused a bad feeling in the group, who would ask: ‘Why are you sending us if you’re afraid or if you’re not allowed?’” remarked Mr Gabai.

Bethlehem is particularly popular with Christian pilgrims, and Israeli guides have long complained of having to leave their groups when they enter Palestinian areas.

Before getting the new permit, Mr Gabai only knew the West Bank from the time when he did his military service there.

“I have never been here as a civilian, so it’s a kind of strange situation being here in civilian clothes and going to shops and tourist sites.”

At one stage he asks the bus driver, an Arab-Israeli who knows the area, for the name of a refugee camp they have just passed.

“I don’t know Bethlehem well, so I ask Ali,” he explains in German to the visitors.

The highlight of the Bethlehem trip is a visit to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, and which attracts about two million tourists a year.

Palestinian tour operators hope that in turn, they will get more access to Israel, where tours last several days rather than just a few hours as is the case in Bethlehem.

Under an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, there is supposed to be reciprocity with regard to tour guides.

To date, 42 Palestinian tour guides have permits to enter Israel.

However, Rami Bandak says he has been waiting since 2006 to be granted the right to work tours in Israel.

“Every month they say it’s next month,” he says.

“The Israeli guide association... think this is an ambush and that we will get it by the hundreds, but we are only 24 looking for permission,” he adds. Raphael Ben Hur, deputy director general at the Israeli tourism ministry, insists that “collaboration between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, when it comes to pilgrimage in the Holy Land, is a win-win situation.

“The next step probably is going to be that all the tour guides can go in and the next step is going to be that all the Israelis can go in with them.

“Then what is going to be the next step is peace,” he adds, hopefully.

Sign up to our free newsletters

Get the best updates straight to your inbox:
Please select at least one mailing list.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.