Bethlehem remains under Israeli curfew

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Palestinian Christians said Tuesday they will restrict Christmas observances to religious ritual this year -- the first time since 1994 that Jesus' traditional birthplace is under Israeli occupation during the holiday.

Protesting the troops' presence, the Bethlehem municipality will not put up Christmas lights or decorate the Christmas tree in Manger Square, opposite the Church of the Nativity, said Mayor Hanna Nasser, a Palestinian Christian.

Israel said it has no choice but to stay put as long as militants from Bethlehem plan attacks on Israelis. Capt. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman said, Israel would make "every effort" to enable Christmas celebrations, but could not withdraw because of continued terror warnings.

Israeli troops have raided Bethlehem repeatedly this year.

On Tuesday, Israeli troops enforced a curfew on Bethlehem, the neighboring predominantly Christian towns of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour, and two adjacent refugee camps, confining about 100,000 Palestinians to their homes.

Posted at Manger Square

Two jeeps were parked in Manger Square to keep residents off the streets.

Hiding from the soldiers in the shadows of the Church of the Nativity was street vendor Hussein Hassan, 57, who set out in the morning with an armload of olive wood rosaries in desperate hope of finding customers.

Hassan said he knew his trip was in vain, but couldn't bear staying home. "I have to look for work. It's the season. It's Christmas time," he said. "The curfew and the presence of the Israeli army in Bethlehem are killing tourism."

Tourism in Bethlehem, a town of 27,000 just south of Jerusalem, has suffered badly throughout the past 26 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Bethlehem is ringed by army checkpoints, and tourists and pilgrims have been scared off by the violence, including firefights between local gunmen and Israeli troops.

With tourists staying away, Bethlehem's biggest souvenir vendors have begun advertising their goods, including olive wood carvings of manger scenes and tree decorations, on the Internet and in marketing trips in the United States.

Tawfik Salsa, 60, who used to employ 10 carvers, was working alone in his studio Tuesday while his son Wissam was on a sales trip in the United States. Salsa said the family has shipped 2,000 manger scenes to America.

The family also sells via its Web site, Olive Wood Arts.

This Christmas -- the third since the outbreak of fighting -- is expected to be the gloomiest in years, said Nasser, the mayor. "The situation is very sad and very bad in the town that witnessed the birth of Jesus Christ, the town of peace."

In 2000 and 2001, celebrations were also low-key, but some Christians put up colored lights outside their homes and the municipality decorated the Manger Square tree. A few choirs arrived from abroad for the traditional Christmas Eve concert in Manger Square, and Boy Scouts with drums and bagpipes led a procession of clergymen, including patriarchs of Christian denominations from Jerusalem.

The clergy will march again this year, but not accompanied by drums and bagpipes.

Nasser said the decision not to have decorations was backed by all Christian leaders in the Holy Land. In the West Bank town of Ramallah, a leading Greek Orthodox Church layman, Marwan Toubassi, said Tuesday Christians throughout the Holy Land would strictly stick to only religious observances this year.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a Muslim, is being banned by Israel from attending Christmas Mass in Bethlehem for the second straight year. On Tuesday, he accused Israel of breaking a promise to Pope John Paul II to pull troops out of Bethlehem before the holiday.

"Regretfully, our families can't celebrate Christmas as every year," he said.

Last week, Israeli President Moshe Katsav told the pope Israel would withdraw, provided there were no terror warnings. However, Israeli officials have said since then that the danger of attacks being launched from Bethlehem persisted.

Danny Rothschild, a former military governor of the West Bank, said Israel should withdraw from Bethlehem at least for the holiday.

"Our presence in Bethlehem will make the holiday very difficult for Christians, and cause problems in our relations with Christians and the international community," Rothschild told Israel TV.

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