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Bethlehem faces another gloomy Christmas

Israel has barred Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for a third straight year, as the West Bank town prepares for yet another depressing Christmas.

The place of Jesus' birth has been battered by relentless Palestinian-Israeli violence that has decimated its tourism-based economy, throwing thousands out of work, closing shops and leaving the town's residents with little to celebrate.

An Associated Press feature described the Church of the Nativity as empty, with "a few ornaments hung forlornly on trees" in a deserted Manger Square, just over a week before Christmas.

Arafat told a Christian delegation at his sandbagged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday that he hoped to take part in the Christmas festivities this year in Bethlehem.

"I haven't missed it, except since being besieged in this building," Arafat said.

An Israeli official said the Palestinian Authority had requested that Arafat be allowed to make the 20 km trip from Ramallah to Bethlehem, but Israel would not agree.

Arafat, a Muslim, had attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem each year after Israel turned Bethlehem over to his Palestinian Authority in 1994.

Christmas Eve then became as much a Palestinian political celebration as a religious one, with posters of Arafat and streamers made of hundreds of little Palestinian flags flying alongside strings of colored lights. Crowds of young Palestinians celebrated independence alongside Christian tourists and pilgrims.

Last Christmas, the Vatican complained to Israel about access to Manger Square in Bethlehem because it was again under Israeli military occupation. The Israelis had moved back into the town in response to violence, but pulled their tanks back just before Christmas.

This time they are a bit further away, after leaving the town again in July. But Nasser said they caused $A6.7 million in damage in their seven months in the town. Israeli soldiers are manning checkpoints at the entrances to Bethlehem, restricting movement there, as they do in the rest of the West Bank.

Bethlehem Faces Another Gloomy Christmas (Associated Press/Newsday 17/12/03)

18 Dec 2003