- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

BETHLEHEM Israel and the Palestinian Authority were locked last night in a theatrical standoff over Chairman Yasser Arafat's demand to go to Bethlehem for Christmas, as Christian youths here defied efforts to dampen festive spirits by staging the only disco session in the entire West Bank.
To 17-year-old Najib and his classmates, the political saber-rattling, politicking and occasional gunbattles elsewhere could not get in the way of a good and rare party.
"We are expecting people to burst in here any moment and tell us to stop," said Najib, dancing to the thunderous beat of Western pop music and to more lyrical Arabic love songs in the Olive Tree Disco, a smart new Bethlehem hangout. "It's Christmas coming up, we've just finished exams and we have to celebrate."
Najib was concerned needlessly, as it turned out that the party would be broken up as an affront to the gravity of the Palestinian struggle either by Islamic hard-liners or by mainstream militants, or else by families of the 63 persons killed in or around this city since the intifada began 15 months ago.
The nightclub bouncer last night was one of the many youths here who had jobs overseas. A fisherman on the Mediterranean coast, he how helps his uncle run an Arab-cuisine restaurant in Prague.
Meanwhile, the politicians were dancing to a more ominous drumbeat, as Mr. Arafat vowed to ignore Israel's roadblocks and get to Bethlehem from Ramallah, "even if I have to walk."
His political-military movement Fatah mounted a banner-waving protest in front of the Church of Nativity in Manger Square here, stirred by an oration from the head of the Fatah's fighting force, the Qassam Brigade.
Alongside, an unlit neon sign prematurely declared: "Bethlehem Welcomes Arafat."
Israel's defense minister, Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, ordered a "charm offensive" at checkpoints and eased travel restrictions for priests and pilgrims going to Christ's birthplace. Soldiers at the entrances to the city, he said in a press release, were instructed to be especially courteous to incoming visitors.
Later, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged free access to all holy sites and said Israel "recognizes the sanctity of this land to members of other religions."
In a clear effort to link Israel's cause with the global war on terrorism, Mr. Sharon said: "During this festive season, symbolizing the yearning of the Christian world for peace, we hope that the new year will bring the victory of light and freedom over the forces of darkness and terror which threaten the free world today."
Israel's security Cabinet, by a phone vote, declared that it was barring Mr. Arafat from leaving Ramallah until he arrested those responsible for recent bombing and shootings that killed 37 Israelis, including their tourism minister.
Sharply aware of the need to restore international support, Mr. Arafat has been at pains to stress that the Palestinians comprise both Muslims and Christians and in recent days has renewed a vow to fight for hegemony over the holy places of Islam and Christianity while avoiding mention of any Jewish sites.
At the disco party last night, one of the youths said: "We don't actually care who rules us, Israelis or bin Laden, for that matter just so long as we get our human rights and freedom to do what we want and go where we want and earn some money."
The party-goers were convinced the intifada would continue despite Mr. Arafat's calls for a cease-fire and the militant group Hamas' decision to halt suicide bombings against Israel.
"We have to do what the leadership says, and they do whatever they want they don't listen to us," one complained. "It's a not very happy Christmas."

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