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Bethlehem Planning Christmas Celebrations Despite Military Curfew (CNS-CYBERCAST NEWS SERVICE) By Julie Stahl JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 12/04/02)Source: http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewForeignBureaus.asp?Page=\ForeignBureaus\archive\200212\FOR20021204a.html CNS} CYBERCAST NEWS SERVICE CNS} CYBERCAST NEWS SERVICE Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is hoping to celebrate a traditional Christmas, despite the fact that Israeli troops now have the Palestinian city under curfew, the city´s mayor said on Tuesday.

Israel scrapped a Bethlehem-Gaza first agreement, whereby security in Bethlehem was returned to the Palestinian Authority. The deal fell apart after a suicide bomber from the area blew up a bus in Jerusalem, killing eleven people.

Israeli troops entered Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala and Beit Sahour nearly two weeks ago in the hunt for terrorist operatives; they have described the area as a closed military zone.

Media reports this week suggested that the army intended to pull its troops out of Bethlehem before Christmas, but Israeli army chief-of- staff Lt.-General Moshe Ya´alon said that the timing of the army withdrawal would depend on the situation on the ground.

"The city is still under security restriction. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, our forces will pull back from the city," Ya´alon said.

Nevertheless, Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser remained hopeful that the city, which has the largest Christian population of any city in the West Bank, would celebrate Christmas.

"If the Israelis will be out of the city we will have our celebrations," Nasser said in a telephone interview. "We should celebrate Christmas, it´s a big day."

Despite the raging intifadah and military closures, the city of Bethlehem and its Christian residents have managed to celebrate Christmas the past two years, albeit with much less activity.

This year will be no different, Nasser said, even if the city is limited to religious services.

Nasser said that an earlier report that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had cancelled Christmas this year was a misunderstanding.

"The PA didn´t say it was going to cancel Christmas," he said.

There will be the traditional religious procession with the church patriarchs, even though the spirit of the citizens is low. There is "no doubt" that the religious services will take place "at any cost, by hook or by crook," he added.

Holiday activities have already been planned in the city, the mayor said, and the municipality was already supposed to have started decorating for the season.

"We´re planning to have a [giant] Christmas tree and a Christmas market," Nasser said.

Consul generals of Europe were supposed to be involved in inaugurating the market and setting up booths there next week, but that is now in question. A prayer for peace gathering is scheduled for December 19 in Manger Square and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Rome was due to give a concert two days before Christmas.

"I hope [the activities] will continue," he said. Nasser said there is a committee trying to work out with Israel a way to have the celebrations.

The Israeli civil administration in the territories declined to comment on any preparations being made to allow for the celebration of the Christian holiday.

Tourists, which used to flock to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, are still invited to come, Nasser said. A few hundred were supposed to be coming this year.

"We encouraged them to come to the city. Bethlehem is safe. There is no risk," he said. Nasser encouraged Christians around the world to think about Bethlehem and its residents even when its not Christmas, but for now he asked that they put pressure on the Israeli government to "leave us alone" during the holidays.

Bethlehem was catapulted into the headlines last April when about 40 armed and wanted militants and dozens of civilians were holed up in the Church of the Nativity for five weeks in a standoff with the Israeli army.

International mediation brought the standoff to a close and by expelling 13 of the most wanted militants abroad to European nations and sending another 26 to the Gaza Strip.

Two relatives of two men murdered by some of those expelled petitioned Israel´s High Court on Tuesday, demanding the extradition of the murderers to stand trial in Israel. (copyright 1998-2002 Cybercast News Service. 12/04/02)

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