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Israel-Arafat Standoff on Bethlehem Visit Continues - 2001-12-24

The diplomatic standoff continues between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over Mr. Arafat's proposed travel to Bethlehem. So far even international efforts have been unable to change Israel's decision.

Israel refuses to budge. The security cabinet on Sunday voted to bar Mr. Arafat from going to Bethlehem on the grounds he is not clamping down enough on terrorism.

Israel says it will only let Mr. Arafat attend Christmas Eve church services there if he arrests, before sundown, two suspects linked to the October murder of Israel's Tourism minister.

International mediation efforts are underway to find a compromise. Even some members of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet describe the standoff as inflammatory and an unnecessary provocation.

The Palestinian leader has attended Christmas Eve church services in Bethlehem every year since 1995, when the city came under Palestinian control.

Israeli officials say his trip there is political, not religious, and he should not be allowed until he cracks down on terrorism.

Mr. Arafat has been arresting terrorist suspects but Israel says it is too little too late. Ironically, the ban on Mr. Arafat's travel comes after nearly a week of relative calm following Mr. Arafat's public plea for an end to attacks against Israel.

A Palestinian spokesman says barring Mr. Arafat from Bethlehem humiliates the entire Palestinian people. The Palestinian mayor of Bethlehem says he will boycott the Christmas Eve festivities if Mr. Arafat does not attend.

Yasser Arafat insists he will go even if he has to walk to Bethlehem. Israel says he will be turned back at the first checkpoint he encounters.

Israel has reinforced the checkpoint just outside Ramallah and barred all cars from leaving the city. The Palestinians leader has been stranded in the West Bank town since Israel destroyed his helicopters three weeks ago and tightened the military roadblocks around the town.