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Tuesday, 10 December, 2002, 03:01 GMT
Bethlehem braces for Christmas strife
Trainee priests in procession in Bethlehem
Many Christians go to Bethlehem for the festive season
Martin Asser

For the second year running, Bethlehem looks set to become a focus of conflict at the very time it takes on extra significance as the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has expressed a desire to celebrate Christmas in the town, which lies about 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

This town is the Capital of Christmas but with a curfew lasting 17 days we haven't made any preparations

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser
But the Israeli Government - which has kept Mr Arafat pinned down in Ramallah for most of the past year and whose troops have Bethlehem in a stranglehold - has other ideas.

At first the spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, Ranaan Gissin, was quoted as saying bluntly that Israel would "not let Arafat go to Bethlehem".

That position was later reworded: "Christmas Mass is intended to pray for peace... but Arafat has not been a man of peace... and hasn't done anything to advance the course of peace, so he should stay away".

Tank in Manger Square, Bethlehem
The town is currently under Israeli curfew

Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser - a Palestinian Christian - says Bethlehem's inhabitants have not taken the news well.

"I don't see what right Israel has to ban President Arafat from Bethlehem," he told BBC News Online.

"This town is the Capital of Christmas, but with a curfew lasting 17 days we haven't been able to make any preparations... this is collective punishment of Bethlehem," Mr Nasser said.

Special day

From 1995 to 2000, the Palestinian leader, a Muslim who married into a prominent Palestinian Christian family, put himself at the centre of the three Christmas festivals in Bethlehem.

These are on 25 December for western Christians, 6 January for the main eastern and Orthodox traditions, and 18 January for Armenians.

Crowds gather at Christmas sound and light show in Bethlehem
Christians and Muslims took part in celebrations
1995-96 was the first Christmas season after Israel ended its occupation of Bethlehem and handed over chunks of the West Bank to Palestinian self-rule under the Oslo peace process.

Christmas in Bethlehem quickly became an important event for all Palestinians - Christians and Muslims (whose devotion to Jesus derives from his status as an Islamic prophet) - who unashamedly celebrated their national aspirations along with the birth of Jesus.

The optimism of the celebrations was witnessed by hundreds of millions of viewers around the world in Christmas TV broadcasts.

Festive spirit deserts

As Palestinian optimism surrounding the peace process diminished, the annual event in Bethlehem lost some of its exuberance, but none of its determination to fly the colours of Palestine on the world stage.

By 2000, however, it had become a solemn affair - a world away from what Bethlehem's leaders had been planning to mark Christ's 2000th anniversary.

Santa Claus meets children in Manger Square
In happier times, Bethlehem saw a mixture of Christmas traditions
It was three months into the Palestinian intifada, and hundreds of lives had been lost during Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation.

For a few days it looked like celebrations in the place where it had all happened 2,000 years earlier would be cancelled completely, until Mayor Hanna Nasser insisted that "low-key" festivities would take place.

Mr Arafat himself made sure he was on hand, venturing into the West Bank for the first time since the violence had begun.

Absent friend

But in 2001, with hardliner Ariel Sharon in power in Israel - who was elected promising to make Mr Arafat "irrelevant" in the peace process - the Palestinian leader was prevented from travelling the 30 km from Ramallah.

The reason given was that the killers of right-wing tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi were still at large and must be arrested by the Palestinian Authority before Mr Arafat could travel to Bethlehem.

Yasser Arafat in Manger Square
For Arafat, Bethlehem combines international and Palestinian significance
In a televised address, Mr Arafat condemned the ban as "a crime" depriving him of the right to participate in "the commemoration of the messenger of peace".

The killers of Mr Zeevi have now been dealt with, but one year on, it looks like the Israeli Government is once again looking for ways to prevent Mr Arafat from delivering his brand of Christmas message on the world stage.

And Hanna Nasser says Bethlehem is bracing itself for another grim Christmas.

"We don't see happiness, we don't see smiles on the faces of the children," he says. "Christmas is for everyone, but should be especially for the children, and they are living under siege."

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