The Israeli cabinet decided Sunday to ban Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for the second year in a row. The Israeli army said its troops are to remain in the West Bank town throughout the festive season.
Israel blames Mr. Arafat for failing to prevent Palestinians from carrying out suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.
It is understood that Israel is concerned that allowing Mr. Arafat to attend Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity would give the Palestinian leader a high profile public platform to criticize the Jewish State.
Mr. Arafat was also prevented from visiting the town during Christmas last year. One year ago the Israeli Cabinet cut off all contacts with the Palestinian leader and said it would only negotiate with other Palestinian officials.
Since then, Mr. Arafat has rarely traveled outside his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Even though he is a Muslim, he had regularly attended Christmas services in Bethlehem since the town was transferred to Palestinian self-rule in 1995.
The Palestinian leadership immediately denounced the latest Israeli ban. Nabil Abu Rudeinah, a spokesman for Mr. Arafat, says the decision is a breach of undertakings given to the U.S. administration and Christian leaders to allow the Palestinian leader access to Bethlehem.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that, while Mr. Arafat was barred from visiting the town, Israel remains committed to fostering religious freedom in Bethlehem.
He said there will be no restrictions on Christmas church services being held in the town south of Jerusalem which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus.
The head of Israel's army, General Moshe Ya'alon, said Israeli troops will continue to be stationed in Bethlehem throughout the holiday period.
An Israeli security official said there are still warnings of Palestinian attacks being organized in Bethlehem. He says removing the troops would only make Israel more vulnerable to terrorism.