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Critics Denounce Israeli Decision to Bar Arafat From Bethlehem - 2001-12-24

Israel's president, church leaders and foreign governments urged Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in vain to reverse the decision to bar Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from traveling to Bethlehem for Christmas festivities. Also Monday, Palestinian gunmen shot and wounded a Jewish settler in the West Bank.

A militant group known as Al Aqsa Brigade has claimed responsibility for shooting a Jewish settler in the West Bank as a sign, it says, of anger over Israel's decision to ban Yasser Arafat from Bethlehem. A Palestinian gunman was killed in the attack.

Israel's cabinet banned Mr. Arafat from traveling to Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations unless he handed over two suspects linked to the October murder of Israel's Tourism Minister.

The decision sparked widespread criticism and condemnation from church officials, international leaders and Pope John Paul II who has tried to persuade Mr. Sharon to relent. Several members of Mr. Sharon's cabinet called the decision inflammatory.

Israel's president also urged Prime Minister Sharon to let the Palestinian leader go to Bethlehem.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah, the senior Vatican representative in the Holy Land, met with the Palestinian leader in Ramallah to show his support. "We want to present him our wishes for the feast of Christmas and to tell him that he will be present whether he will come or not," he said.

Palestinian advisor Nabil Abu Irdeineh called the decision a humiliation for all Palestinians. "And the Israeli government is challenging the world community, challenging the religious community, challenging all the ethics on the ground and this is a real violation, a dangerous violation," he said.

With only a few hours to go before the traditional Midnight Mass, Israel still refused to budge and reinforced the military checkpoints around the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Mr. Arafat now is expected to attend church services.

Mr. Arafat has been a virtual prisoner there for the past three weeks. Israel destroyed his helicopters and intensified its military campaign in the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Arafat has attended Christmas Eve festivities in Bethlehem every year since 1995 when the city was put under Palestinian control.

Bethlehem's mayor said he would boycott the festivities. Children marching in Bethlehem's daytime celebrations carried large posters bearing Mr. Arafat's portrait in a show of solidarity with their leader.