- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2000

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Small crowds of Palestinians and a thin trickle of foreign tourists staged subdued Christmas Eve commemorations yesterday in Jesus' birthplace of Bethlehem, soaked by cold rain and saddened by three months of wrenching violence.

The 2,000th anniversary of Christ's birth was supposed to have been the centerpiece of a banner year of millennium celebrations in the Holy Land. But the 13-week-old outbreak of fighting between Palestinians and Israeli troops which has taken at least 345 lives, nearly all Palestinian cast a pall over holiday observances in this West Bank town.

"It hasn't been this bad since the intifada," said Said Marcos, 80, a grizzled Palestinian man in a red-checked headdress, referring to the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising. "The first one, you mean," his 70-year-old wife, Melia, gently reminded him. "Now we are in another intifada."

At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II said his own thoughts during the Christmas Eve Mass turned to the Holy Land, recalling what for him had been his eagerly anticipated first trip there as pontiff earlier in the Holy Year.

"I think with concern of the Holy Places, and especially of the town of Bethlehem, where, sadly, because of the troubled political situation, the evocative rites of Christmas cannot be celebrated with their usual solemnity. Tonight, I would like the Christian communities in those places to feel that the whole church is very close to them," John Paul said.

"We are close to you, dear brothers and sisters, in a particularly intense prayer. We share your anxiety for the destiny of the entire region of the Middle East."

Bethlehem's Manger Square, the broad yellow-stoned plaza fronting the sixth-century Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus' birth, was all but devoid of holiday decorations, stripped of its usual array of twinkling lights and colorful banners.

There were so few Christmas trappings that when a Palestinian father brought his two children into Manger Square dressed in tiny Santa outfits, the youngsters were swarmed by a mass of news photographers.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who always attends the Christmas Eve midnight Mass, was keeping to that tradition this year, although with some difficulty. He flew into Bethlehem from Amman, Jordan, by Jordanian military helicopter, making his first visit to the West Bank since the first days of violence in late September.

Other than trips overseas to drum up diplomatic support for the Palestinians, Mr. Arafat has stayed close to his headquarters in the Gaza Strip during the unrest. In Bethlehem, the Palestinian leader spent the day closeted in meetings with top ministers some of whom he had not seen face-to-face for months discussing U.S. peace proposals put forth in a round of meetings last week in Washington.

The holiday's political overtones were also pointedly emphasized by the cleric presiding over Bethlehem's Christmas observances Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land and the first Palestinian to hold the post.

"We hope that everyone will understand that the Palestinian people must have their freedom," the patriarch said before embarking on what is normally a joyous procession from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. "This is the grace we ask from God on this holiday."

In recent years, the patriarch's procession would be preceded by a cavalcade of somewhat off-key but enthusiastic Palestinian marching bands playing an eclectic mix of Christmas carols and nationalistic songs. This year, the only accompaniment was the muffled chanting of Franciscan monks and a few pilgrims' voices raised in plaintive song.

Few foreigners were in Bethlehem for the celebrations. Tourism has plunged during the outbreak of unrest. Those who braved the violence tended to be committed pilgrims rather than casual visitors.

"It's sad what's happening here, but Christmas is in your heart," said a bearded George Walter, 59, of Pittsburgh, clad in a robe of faded, patched denim and carrying a staff decorated with beads and a depiction of the Crucifixion. He said he had left behind his old life to spend the past 16 months trekking through the Holy Land.

Christmas Eve visitors had to pass through three military roadblocks two Israeli and one Palestinian to enter Bethlehem. The Israeli army said Christian pilgrims could enter freely, but warned that the town could be sealed off in the event of clashes.

Bethlehem and its environs have been hit hard by the fighting. Clashes have repeatedly raged around the Jewish shrine-turned-fortress of Rachel's Tomb, where youngsters from nearby refugee camps gather to hurl stones at Israeli troops, and the soldiers respond with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and sometimes live fire.

The Christian village of Beit Sahour on Bethlehem's outskirts the site of Shepherds' Field, where biblical tradition says the herders watching their sheep were awestruck by news of the Christ Child's birth has been the scene of fierce nighttime battles between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops in recent weeks.

"I know Christmas is supposed to be all about peace," said a Palestinian Christian, Jimmy Hayek, 22, whose hometown is Bethlehem. "But I don't think there's going to be any peace this year."

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