Israeli Troops Withdraw From Bethlehem (AP) By Ibrahim Hazboun BETHLEHEM, West Bank 12/24/02 1:54 PM)
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BETHLEHEM, West Bank The Israeli army pulled troops back to the
outskirts of Bethlehem on Tuesday, maintaining a low profile in the
biblical city to allow pilgrims to celebrate the Christmas holiday.
But in the Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers fired a tank shell at
Palestinians between the Karni and Erez crossings with Israel,
killing one young man and wounding three others, Palestinian hospital
officials said. Further information was not immediately available and
the army said it was checking the report.
The incident raised tensions as Christians prepared for the Christmas
holiday in Israeli-occupied Bethlehem. The city known as the
traditional birthplace of Jesus was cheerless and subdued the
municipality refused to put a Christmas tree in Manger Square across
from the Church of the Nativity to protest the Israeli troop presence.
There were no glistening lights, no bells, no holly and few, if
There was no visible Israeli military presence either soldiers
manning the entrances to the town checked cars going in, but armored
vehicles and uniformed soldiers stayed outside.
This year marks the first Christmas since 1994 that Bethlehem has
been under Israeli occupation during the holiday, and Palestinian
Christians who make up nearly half the city´s 27,000 population
said they could not recall a worse Christmas.
"The people of Bethlehem do not have the spirit of celebrating
Christmas. There is no joy in people´s hearts," said Raed Zarrouk,
26. "I see no decorations, no fireworks and no tourists."
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic
clergyman in the Holy Land, led a procession from Jerusalem to
Rachel´s Tomb in Bethlehem. Sabbah was greeted by Palestinian Boy
Scouts carrying Palestinian flags and pictures of Yasser Arafat
and escorted into the church.
The Israeli army said it redeployed troops to the outskirts of the
city to allow celebrations to take place without hindrance. Israeli-
Arab Christians will be allowed to enter the city on public
transportation, and Christian residents of the West Bank will be
allowed in with special permits.
"We will make every effort to facilitate the celebrations. There is
now no curfew on Bethlehem and we hope to keep it that way. We shall
facilitate efforts to allow anybody to enter who wants to worship,"
the army said. "Where we need not be we will not be."
Israeli troops have raided Bethlehem repeatedly this year, and began
their most recent stay on Nov. 22, after a suicide bomber from
Bethlehem blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus, killing 11 Israelis.
Two years of Mideast violence has kept foreign visitors away,
bankrupting many Bethlehem merchants who count on a busy Christmas
season for their livelihood. Doors were open Tuesday at souvenir
shops, but no customers were inside.
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser called it a "sad Christmas" and said the
only way to end the suffering on both sides was with the creation of
an independent Palestinian state.
"Our message to the world is to restore peace to the town of
Bethlehem and all the Palestinian territories and to give the
Palestinians a chance to live as real humans," Nasser said. "We hope
next year we´ll have a better Christmas and a real one."
A revised, U.S.-backed blueprint for Mideast peace and eventual
Palestinian statehood sharpens demands for the Palestinians to end
attacks on Israelis and enact serious political reform, according to
a draft obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
The latest of several drafts says Palestinians must "immediately
undertake an unconditional cessation of violence." Previous versions
did not use the word "unconditional."
A diplomat who deals with the Palestinian Authority said this and
other shifts in nuance were inserted at the insistence of the United
States during recent meetings of the so-called "Quartet" of
peacemakers the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the
Compared with earlier versions, the seven-page document adds a phrase
making Palestinian statehood conditional on "a (Palestinian)
leadership acting decisively against terror and able to build a
practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty."
Arafat, a Muslim, was banned by Israel from attending Christmas Mass
in Bethlehem for the second straight year. Speaking to a Christian
delegation at his Ramallah headquarters on Monday, the Palestinian
leader condemned Israel for its presence in Bethlehem but said he
still holds out hope for peace.
"Our message on Christmas Eve is a message of love, peace and
forgiveness, of Israeli and Palestinian coexistence and respect for
all humanity," Arafat said. "We strongly condemn violence, killing,
destruction and the prevention of others from exercising their rights
to celebrate their holy occasion."
About 200 Israelis representing a group called "Tayush," or
Coexistence, arrived in the city, some bringing wrapped gifts for
"I am here to show solidarity with the innocent people who are living
under occupation," said Shuli Hartman, 50, of Tel Aviv. "There is no
way that one side can live in happiness while the others suffer."
(© 2002 The Associated Press 12/24/02)
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