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Sunday, 8 December, 2002, 23:53 GMT
Israel blocks Arafat Bethlehem visit
Mass at the Church of the Nativity
Christmas celebrations could be curbed this year
Israel has said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be blocked from visiting the West Bank town of Bethlehem for the second Christmas in a row.

"He's going to stay put," Raanan Gissin, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told Reuters. "We're not going to let Arafat go to Bethlehem."


This is a crude attempt to undermine a religious occasion and to prevent the Palestinian president from sharing Christmas with his people

Saeb Erekat, Palestinian minister
Mr Arafat said he wanted to attend Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical town in an earlier interview with the news agency.

Israel prevented Mr Arafat from visiting Bethlehem last Christmas, despite international appeals, saying he had failed to do enough to rein in militants carrying out attacks in Israel.

Annual event

Mr Arafat had celebrated Christmas midnight mass in Bethlehem - revered as the birthplace of Jesus - every year since 1995 when it was handed over to Palestinian rule.

"It's my duty to be there," Mr Arafat said in the interview.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat said is was his duty to attend

Mr Gissin said that the ban would remain in place because again Mr Arafat had not done enough to "halt terror", a charge Mr Arafat has repeatedly rejected.

"This is a crude attempt to undermine a religious occasion and to prevent the Palestinian president from sharing Christmas with his people," Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat responded.

"It just reflects that this Israeli Government is determined to pursue its escalation at all levels," he added.

Curfew in place

Bethlehem is currently under occupation by Israeli troops who moved in after a suicide bomb attack on a bus in Jerusalem.


We already had to cancel Easter celebrations because of the occupation, now they might take Christmas away from us

Lucy Hazboun, Bethlehem resident

A curfew has been in place for the last 17 days, threatening to prevent thousands of pilgrims and tourists from attending Christmas celebrations this year.

"If the Israelis maintain the curfew for Christmas, which would be unprecedented, it will be up to religious authorities to decide what the population should do," said Bethlehem vice-governor Mounir Salameh.

"We already had to cancel Easter celebrations because of the occupation, now they might take Christmas away from us," Lucy Hazboun, a local resident. "Our home has turned into a prison."

The military clampdown in Bethlehem is expected to be discussed at a meeting between Pope John Paul II and Israeli President Moshe Katsav at the Vatican on Wednesday.

It will be the first face-to-face talks between the Pontiff and a senior Israeli official since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, 26 months ago.


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22 Nov 02 | Middle East
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