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Palestinians’ yule statehood gambit

‘Celebrating hope’ is subtle message amid Bethlehem tourism season

- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2011

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.

The Bethlehem area, which borders lands Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 Mideast War, has been particularly hard-hit by settlement construction, said Hagit Ofran of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now.

She said the expansion is an attempt to block the Palestinians from establishing a capital in the annexed areas of Jerusalem - a reference to the fact that the construction creates an Israeli buffer between Palestinian areas that Israel has effectively ceded, like Bethlehem, and any part of Jerusalem.

Mr. Regev argued that Israel only approved construction "in areas where there is a strong consensus internationally that they'll stay part of Israel" in a final peace deal.

After Christmas, Mr. Abbas' government also plans to seek U.N. recognition of Bethlehem as a world heritage site, following acceptance of Palestine as a member of the world body's cultural agency, UNESCO.

The successful UNESCO membership bid further strained relations with Israel, which accused Mr. Abbas of trying to bypass negotiations with unilateral actions. Israel also temporarily suspended the transfer of $100 million in Palestinian tax refunds.

Over the years, Christmas in Bethlehem has reflected the roller-coaster ride of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tourism experienced a long dry spell at the height of the second Palestinian uprising a decade ago. At one point, Palestinian gunmen on the run from Israeli troops even barricaded themselves in the Church of the Nativity for a month.

During the relative lull of recent years, the number of visitors has risen gradually, in part because Israel has eased access through the barrier of gray cement slabs along the stretch separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

This year, the number of foreign visitors is expected to be up about 10 percent from last year, mainly because more pilgrims are coming from Russia and Poland, new markets for the Palestinian tourism industry, officials said.

Local Christians say they have no problem with politicizing the holiday, saying the conflict with Israel affects everyone's lives here.

"The settlements and the wall turned Bethlehem into a jail," said Suzan Atallah, a 48-year-old teacher and mother of four.

"My school can't take the students to sacred places that they read about in Jerusalem because of the wall and the permits," she added, referring to Israel's stringent entry restrictions for Palestinians.

In Beit Jalla, a town next to Bethlehem, prayers at the local Roman Catholic church have focused on the fear of losing land to Israel's separation barrier, said the congregation's priest, the Rev. Ibrahim Shomaly.

The Palestinians denounce the wall as a land grab because, in many places, it encroaches into the West Bank, effectively pushing the de facto border forward.

Father Shomaly said a new section currently under construction near Beit Jalla will hamper the community's access to hundreds of acres of land.

"We started praying six weeks ago and will keep praying until God helps us protect our land," the priest said.

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