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 Monday, 9 December, 2002, 12:24 GMT
Arafat 'should not go to Bethlehem'
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Bethlehem, May 2002
The Palestinian leader last visited Bethlehem in May
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman has said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should not attend Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem this year because he "has not been a man of peace".

The Mass in Bethlehem is intended to pray for peace, and he has not been a man of peace

Ranaan Gissin
But the spokesman, Ranaan Gissin, appeared to contradict earlier remarks attributed to him that Mr Arafat would be prevented from visiting Bethlehem, 30 kilometres from where he is pinned down by the Israeli army in Ramallah.

"He should stay in his place... because he has caused much tragedy to the Christian population, and he didn't do anything to advance the cause of peace," Mr Gissin said in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday.

Ranaan Gissin (as army spokesman in October 2000) talking to the BBC
Ranaan Gissin appeared to contradict himself
"The Mass in Bethlehem is intended to pray for peace, and [Mr Arafat] has not been a man of peace," Mr Gissin added.

Mr Gissin denied he had said - as quoted by Reuters news agency - that Israel would prevent Mr Arafat's attendance.

"I didn't say we would stop him. I just said that he should stay in his place," Mr Gissin said.

Israel prevented Mr Arafat from visiting the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ for Christmas 2001, despite international appeals, saying he had failed to do enough to rein in militants carrying out attacks in Israel.

Annual event

Until last year, Mr Arafat, who is Muslim, had attended every Christmas midnight Mass in Bethlehem since 1995 when the town was handed over to Palestinian rule.

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
"It's my duty to be there," Mr Arafat said in an interview with Reuters on Sunday.

Palestinian officials said Mr Gissin's statements reflected an Israeli determination to escalate the conflict in the occupied Palestinian territories.

"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 said.

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 past 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," said 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.

Ramallah has been under continuous Israeli occupation for four months.


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10 Dec 02 | Middle East
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