In Bethlehem, a relaxed Christmas Eve

A modest holiday turnout, mild Palestinian protests

December 25, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - The tortured politics of the Middle East seeped even into Christmas Eve festivities yesterday as schoolchildren banged drums and blew bagpipes while leading clerics on a parade through Manger Square.

The bearded man featured on a large banner looking down on the square was Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who was a regular Christmas Eve visitor until Israel clamped travel restrictions on him in December 2001.

Amid the children prancing in Santa suits, several Palestinian families held a protest to demand the return of their relatives, militants whom Israel has deported to Europe and the Gaza Strip.

Santa Claus is depicted climbing a brick wall toward outstretched hands on the far side, a reference to the barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank, including near Bethlehem.

"Don't convert Bethlehem into a ghetto," said another banner hanging near the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition holds that Jesus was born.

Several thousand Palestinians and a smattering of foreigners filled less than half the square, a modest turnout compared with the tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims from around the world who packed the plaza at Christmastime before the current Middle East bloodshed began in September 2000.

If the mood was not quite festive, at least it was relaxed.

Israeli troops pulled out of Bethlehem in July, and Palestinian security forces patrol the streets, one of the few Palestinian towns where this is still the case.

Israeli soldiers remain on the outskirts of Bethlehem, manning checkpoints. But the military said it was attempting to facilitate tourism, and there were no long lines.

"Neither Israeli nor Palestinian wants war and bloodshed," said the Rev. Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, in his Christmas message. "Israelis are in search of their security, and Palestinians are in search of their land and liberty."

But the patriarch, a Palestinian who is head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, called on Israel to take down the barrier, which Israel says is needed to prevent suicide attacks.

"The separation wall that is being erected is a measure that pushes peace further away, delaying peace until this same wall comes falling down," the patriarch said.

While tourists are scarce, another factor limiting attendance is the dwindling number of Christians in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Bethlehem's mayor, Hanna Nasser, says about 2,000 Christians in Bethlehem have emigrated during the past three years of fighting.

Bethlehem, overwhelmingly Christian a half-century ago, now counts only about 11,000 Christians among its 28,000 residents, officials say.

The shrinking Christian population now accounts for about 2.5 percent of the people in Israel and the Palestinian areas, a small fraction of what it was decades ago.

"People are leaving because of the bad situation," said George Hazboun, a 23-year-old Bethlehem native. "For someone with children, it's tough to stay when there are no jobs."

Bethlehem is dependent on tourism, and Hazboun, a chef, works perhaps one day a month when there is a special event at Bethlehem's top hotel, the Jacir Palace Inter-Continental.

His wife is Italian, and he could leave if he wanted. But he plans to stay put for now. "This is where my family is," Hazboun said. "This is where my life is."

While Palestinians said they hoped next Christmas would be better, many have grown pessimistic.

"The tourism won't pick up until there's an improvement in the political situation," said Joseph Giacaman, whose family has closed three of its five souvenir shops because of a lack of business.

The political news was not promising yesterday. The Palestinians postponed a meeting between aides to the Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers. The session was to have set up talks between the Palestinian premier, Ahmed Qureia, and his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon.

According to Palestinian officials, the move was a protest against Israel's incursion Tuesday into Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Nine Palestinians, including militants and civilians, were killed, Palestinians said.

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