Bethlehem celebrates Christmas Eve

Peaceful gathering brings tentative optimism about Palestinians and Israelis

December 25, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - In this Christmas season of hopes and fears, the little town of Bethlehem finds itself suspended somewhere between the two.

With lamplight glowing softly on ancient stones and incense's musty fragrance penetrating the damp winter chill, Palestinian Christians, foreign dignitaries and a smattering of tourists celebrated midnight Mass last night in the basilica built on the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.

The holiday - marked by its usual disorienting Holy Land melange of army roadblocks and candlelight carols, twinkling lights and olive-drab armored vehicles - has seen some tentative cause for optimism this year: the easing of day-to-day violent conflict with Israel, coupled with greater Palestinian aspirations to democracy in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death.

But Bethlehem, battered by more than four years of bitter fighting between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops, wonders whether it can ever revitalize a tourism industry that was once its lifeblood. And city fathers sadly concede that the long-standing exodus of Palestinian Christians, a living link to Bethlehem's place in the biblical canon, is probably irreversible.

Still, the city was able to conjure up something of its centuries-old Christmas spirit. Festive crowds packed Manger Square, with Santa-shaped balloons bobbing in night air scented by the deep-fried aroma of falafel, the quintessential Middle Eastern snack food.

Most of the celebrants in Bethlehem were local Palestinians, including throngs of young Muslim men and boys seeking any excuse for a night out from one of the city's grim Palestinian refugee camps.

The few foreign tourists mostly belonged to organized church groups, rather than the solo travelers who could be found venturing to the West Bank on their own in the years before the intifada broke out in September 2000.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestine Liberation Organization interim chief who is favored to win the Palestinians' presidential elections Jan. 9, attended midnight Mass in the chapel adjoining the nearly 1,500-year-old Basilica of the Nativity, in what aides said was meant as a message of interfaith solidarity.

With his attendance, Abbas revived a long-held tradition. Arafat, before being effectively imprisoned by Israel in his Ramallah headquarters, had been an enthusiastic adherent of the annual Bethlehem festivities. He and his Christian-born wife, Soha, sometimes dressed up their small daughter, Zawha, in Santa-style garb.

The Israeli army said it had done all it could to ease the passage of foreign pilgrims and local Palestinian Christians to the festivities, although Bethlehem's governor, Zuhair Manasra, said free access should have been provided days earlier, rather than beginning yesterday.

Israel, eager to capitalize on a climate of lessened tensions in the wake of Arafat's death, ceded full security control of Bethlehem to Palestinian security forces for the duration of the holiday and permitted the town's Palestinian police, for the first time in several years, to carry arms in public.

Tourism to Bethlehem has been flattened by the intifada, and merchants acknowledge that although violence has fallen off, visitors are unlikely to return until there has been a prolonged period of calm.

"We hope very much that things will change," said George Baboul, proprietor of a souvenir shop just off Manger Square, full of olive-wood crosses and Nativity scenes.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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