Palestinians’ yule statehood gambit

‘Celebrating hope’ is subtle message amid Bethlehem tourism season

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank — At Christmastime, the world looks to Jesus’ traditional birthplace of Bethlehem, and this year the Palestinians hope to use some of that attention to boost their quest for independence.

They are trying to be subtle about it, with just a hint of politics in this year’s Christmas slogan, “Palestine celebrating hope,” a veiled reference to their bid this fall to win U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.

Organizers say they did not want to be overtly political for fear of putting off foreign pilgrims in search of a religious experience. Some 90,000 foreign visitors are expected to throng the Church of the Nativity and adjacent Manger Square in December, including 50,000 during Christmas week.

“We want to use this opportunity to convey a message to the world that we have hope of having our own independent state, and we need the international support for that,” said Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes. “Since Christmas is a religious occasion, we can’t use direct political slogans.”

Volunteers will distribute postcards with the Christmas motto in the courtyard of the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

Visitors then can mail them at the Manger Square post office, using Palestinian stamps, another symbol of the state in the making.

Members of a tour group from Britain and Canada heading into the Church of the Nativity on Dec. 6 had mixed feelings. Some, like 37-year-old pilot Mario Savian from Ontario, said they did not like injecting politics into Christmas.

Catherine Meecham, 62, a retired health worker from Scotland, said there is a legitimate connection because Christmas is a time to pray for peace.

“I want to see people in Palestine find a peaceful solution,” she said.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the cause of peace would be better served by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas resuming negotiations with Israel.

“We hope that the Palestinians will use the holiday season as a time to think and that ultimately they will soon expeditiously return to peace talks,” he said.

Mr. Abbas has said he will not negotiate unless Israel halts construction for Jews on lands the Palestinians want for their state, arguing settlement growth pre-empts the outcome of talks.

As part of the campaign, the Palestinians also offer pre-Christmas media tours to highlight Bethlehem-area settlement expansion and the disruption caused by Israel’s separation barrier that surrounds the city on three sides. Israel announced or approved plans for thousands more apartments for Jews in the Bethlehem area in recent months.

“This Christmas will be an opportunity to show the real threat to the city of Bethlehem - the settlement enterprise and the wall that separates the city from its twin, Jerusalem,” said Ziad Bandak, an Abbas adviser on Christian affairs.

Israel says the wall is a defense against terrorists who during the years of violence would regularly infiltrate Israel, killing hundreds in suicide bombings and other attacks.

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