BETHLEHEM, West Bank With Israeli troops in the shadows, the city known as the birthplace of Jesus marked a dreary Christmas Eve yesterday, with no light-filled tree in Manger Square, no bells or music, and few pilgrims.
This year is the first since 1994 that Bethlehem is under Israeli occupation during the holiday. And although troops withdrew to the outskirts to let celebrations go on unimpeded, locals said they could not recall a sadder Christmas.
After more than two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, “there is no joy in people’s hearts,” said Raed Zarrouk, 26.
Israeli soldiers swept into Bethlehem last month after a Palestinian suicide bomber from the town blew himself up in a bus in nearby Jerusalem, killing 11 persons. Israel says their continued presence is needed to prevent attacks.
Protesting the takeover, town leaders canceled all Christmas festivities except religious observances. The highlight was midnight Mass at St. Catherine’s Church next to the Church of the Nativity, the fortresslike fourth-century church built over the grottos where tradition holds that Jesus was born.
As in years past, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah delivered the sermon at midnight Mass. Patriarch Sabbah, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, led a procession from Jerusalem. He was greeted by Palestinian Boy Scouts carrying, instead of the traditional drums and bagpipes, Palestinian flags and pictures of Yasser Arafat.
Christmas in Bethlehem, which once attracted tens of thousands of pilgrims and Palestinians, has been subdued for the past two years because of Palestinian-Israeli violence. But this year marked a new low.
The tall fir tree in Manger Square, usually draped with strings of colorful lights and ornaments, stood bare. The platform built each year for choirs to serenade the holiday tourists in Manger Square was absent.
Only a few tourists braved the tension to visit the town. With the violence crippling Bethlehem’s tourism-based economy, many souvenir shops shut down.
Israeli troops kept a tight grip on roadblocks and checkpoints on the outskirts of Bethlehem. But no armored vehicles were visible in Manger Square, where Palestinian police in plain clothes directed traffic and erected barriers to guide worshippers to midnight Mass.
The chief Israeli army liaison officer in Bethlehem, Lt. Col. Moshe Madar, indicated that the pullback was temporary.
“The conditions and the security situation are very difficult, and what we are doing is trying to compromise between security considerations and freedom of worship,” he said on Israeli television.
Several dozen protesters, most of them foreigners, marched around the square with signs denouncing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. “No peace with settlements,” read one, referring to the 150-odd Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza.
Carrying a handful of protest signs, Bassam Bannoura, pastor of the Shepherd’s Field Baptist Church in neighboring Beit Sahour, said Christians are leaving the Holy Land because of the twin hardships caused by Israeli policies and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. One family of Christians planning to leave told him, “‘We have only one life and we want to enjoy it,’” said Mr. Bannoura, 45.
Mr. Arafat, barred by Israel from Bethlehem for the second Christmas in a row, complained on Lebanese television about the lack of international action to force Israel from the town. “Isn’t it my right to ask why the world did not move when Israeli guns were turned toward the statue of the Virgin Mary?” he demanded.
Mr. Arafat, a Muslim, had participated regularly in the Christmas festivities since 1995, the year Israel handed Bethlehem and most other West Bank towns to the nascent Palestinian Authority under interim peace accords.
But Mr. Arafat’s control has gradually unraveled since violence erupted in September 2000. Since then, 2,005 persons have been killed on the Palestinian side and 685 on the Israeli side.
The latest version of a U.S.-backed peace plan links Palestinian statehood to the Palestinians “acting decisively against terror” and calls on Palestinians to “immediately undertake an unconditional cessation of violence,” according to a draft obtained by the Associated Press yesterday. Israel welcomed the changes to the plan, which is expected to be proposed early next year.
But with mistrust and bitterness growing, prospects seem remote for ending the violence.
Yesterday, Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip fired a tank shell at a group of Palestinians between the Karni and Erez crossings with Israel, killing a 15-year-old Palestinian and wounding three others, Palestinian hospital officials said. The military said soldiers identified suspicious figures digging near an unmanned army post and opened fire on them, assuming they were planting explosives.