The streets of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, used to be filled with tourists and residents alike at this time of year. But after more than two years of Israeli Palestinian violence, the holy city is very quiet this year, as it was last year. The residents of this West Bank town are confined to their homes by Israeli forces, who reoccupied Bethlehem and other Palestinian areas, following a recent wave of suicide bombings against Israelis.
For Bethlehem’s Christian residents it is proving to be especially difficult. When they try to go to the famed Church of the Nativity they are faced with Israeli army patrols. Lucia Geries is one such resident.
“Three jeeps stopped us and said, ‘Girls, you don’t know Bethlehem is under curfew?’ We said, ‘Oh yeah, we know that but we want to pray, it’s Sunday.’ They said, ‘Oh well, what’s Sunday? We said, ‘Well we want to pray.’ He said, ‘No you will not go in.’ So we decided we will fight for that.”
Bethlehem’s Mayor – Hana Nasser – says he also has not been able to go to church.
“Very, very few are going to the Mass, and those who are able to, sneak into the church from the neighboring houses. Otherwise, you see me, I ‘m here in my house, the mayor of the town, and I can’t go attend this service in the Church of the Nativity, where I never missed one Sunday.”
Israel has said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will not be allowed to attend Christmas Eve services there. One of his top aides, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said that could cause even more tension between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“President Arafat has become the first Muslim leader actually, to attend the Christmas festivities every year, and if Israel will move to stop and prevent President Arafat from reaching Bethlehem to participate in Christmas, I think this will be a very dangerous escalation, not only a security escalation, but also as far as the political situation is concerned.”
NARRATION Israel did not allow Mr. Arafat to travel to Bethlehem last year either.