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Israel Will Block Arafat from Christmas Mass in Bethlehem

Israeli officials have warned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat against carrying out his threat to defy a ban on him attending Christmas services in Bethlehem. Mr. Arafat says he will attempt to make his way across the West Bank, by foot if necessary.

If he attempts to travel from his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah to Bethlehem for Christmas Mass, Israeli officials say Mr. Arafat will be blocked at army checkpoints.

Israel announced on Sunday that it had banned the Palestinian leader from attending services this year in the city where Jesus was born. The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the ban was imposed because Mr. Arafat has not done enough to halt terrorist attacks against Jews by Palestinian militants.

Although Mr. Arafat is a Muslim, he has attended Christmas mass at Bethlehem since the city was turned over to Palestinian control in 1995.

The ban on Mr. Arafat came despite the Palestinian Authority's claim that it has arrested dozens of militants. It also came just after the militant group Hamas called a temporary halt to suicide bomb attacks in Israel.

The Palestinian leader has remained in Ramallah, following a December 12 massacre of 10 Jews in the West Bank by Palestinian militants. Israeli warplanes destroyed Mr. Arafat's helicopters in one raid.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo says that the Israeli decision is a humiliation for the Palestinian people. He says Mr. Sharon is playing with fire and accuses him of wanting "blood and tears instead of Christmas carols."

Mr. Sharon's own Cabinet is not completely in favor of the ban on Mr. Arafat in Bethlehem. Ministers are asking him to reconsider the decision, saying it will harm Israel's international standing. The Deputy Minister for Internal Security, Gideon Ezra, who has been known to express strong anti-Palestinian sentiments, said it was important for the region that "signs of joy emanate from Bethlehem at Christmas". He says this would not be possible without Mr. Arafat.