Magazine article Insight on the News

Christmas in Bethlehem: Yasser Arafat's Presence in Bethlehem This Christmas Threatens the Traditional Holiday Celebration

Magazine article Insight on the News

Christmas in Bethlehem: Yasser Arafat's Presence in Bethlehem This Christmas Threatens the Traditional Holiday Celebration

Article excerpt

Yasser Arafat's presence in Bethlehem this Christmas threatens the traditional holiday celebration.

This year Christmas will be different," says Elias Freij, mayor of Bethlehem. "A dual celebration - Christmas and the withdrawal of the Israeli authorities." With the Israeli army scheduled to "redeploy" out of the area on Dec. 18 and the Palestinian police ready to move in, this will be the first Christmas in Bethlehem under Palestinian rule, and the first time under Palestinian security.

Townspeople know the world will be watching the annual Christmas Eve broadcast via satellite television. As a local hotel employee named Eddy tells Insight, "This is the first occasion for the Palestinian Authority to tell the whole world they can administer responsibly. It is a kind of test for them. If they fail the first test, it would be horrible - so they have to do it."

Ceremonies, protocol and security procedures on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem will be the same as in other years. "Everything is the same," says Freij, "since the British, since Jordanian rule, since Israeli rule. Only now it is us - Palestinian rule." The mayor says he expects 8,000 tourists and pilgrims - double the number of last year's crowd. Hotels report they were already fully booked by mid-November. Last year, hotels were half-empty on Christmas Eve.

There will be the usual marching bands - this year outfitted with new uniforms. Five thousand Boy Scouts, complete with bagpipes and drums, will march and play in the procession into Bethlehem on Christmas Day, led by the Jerusalem Latin Patriarch. These scouts range in age up to 60 years old - no one gets left out of the festivities - and at least half of them will be Muslim.

In fact, the bulk of the crowd, which Freij estimates this year will be as high as 30,000, is likely to be Muslim. Christmas in Bethlehem is celebrated jointly by Muslims and Christians - the latter being but 2 percent of the Palestinian people. Yet for both it is Jesus' birthday - one as holy savior, the other as holy prophet. Both the New Testament and the Koran report the virgin birth at the little town of Bethlehem.

What makes this year's vigil different is that visitors and natives alike are being promised a chance to celebrate not only the birth of Jesus but also the coming to Bethlehem of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority. Arafat's spokesmen refuse to say whether he will arrive on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or the day after. Speculation is rife. Those familiar with Arafat's ways say it is unlikely that even Arafat knows. "This is the Middle East," they point out, and plans are made and changed on an hour's notice. Others predict he will arrive in time for the worldwide satellite broadcast.

Rumor says Arafat "invited everyone in the world" to Bethlehem for Christmas - many during the Amman economic conference last October. "It is turning into a huge media event," a local clergyman complains to Insight. But his comment does not mean that he or anyone else here is criticizing Arafat for using Christmas for political purposes. …

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