Bleak mid-winter for Bethlehem, with no tree in the square

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The Independent Online
It looks as if the little West Bank town of Bethlehem will have to do without a tree this Christmas.

The good Christians of Finland sent a 12-metre fir to stand in Manger Square across from the Church of the Nativity, Jesus's traditional birthplace. When it arrived at Ashdod port this week, the Israeli authorities refused to let it into the country.

Bethlehem has been under Palestinian self-rule for the past 12 months. Since the Palestinians have no port, imports from Europe have to pass through Israel. The Finnish tree was sent back on the next boat.

The mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, yesterday condemned the ban as "narrow-minded and provocative". Israel sent an Israeli replacement. Mr Freij promptly sent it back. "It was dead," he said indignantly. "I told them to throw it away."

The Israelis say they stopped the Finnish fir on purely public health grounds. Eldad Landes, director of plant protection services in the Ministry of Agriculture, said it was forbidden by law to let foreign conifers into Israel.

"The risk," he explained, "is that the trees might carry insects or fungus that don't exist in this country. They could endanger all our forests and our agriculture. The Finns have been aware of this ban for five years now. They wouldn't let us send Israeli trees to Finland for the same reason."

Mr Landes added that Israel was ready to give Mr Freij another tree if the first offering was not to his satisfaction. "Of course," he said, "he won't accept it. It's all politics."

The 78-year-old mayor has political problems this Christmas on the home front too. Palestinian activists have strung pendants across Manger Square with the portrait of Abu Jihad, co-ordinator of Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who was assassinated by Israeli commandos in Tunis in 1988.

Abu Jihad is a Palestinian folk hero, but he has nothing to do with the infant Jesus. "These pictures are against the Christmas spirit," Mr Freij, a member of the Greek Orthodox church, protested. "We are going to take them down."

Similar portraits of Yasser Arafat, however, will stay up. The Palestinian President, a devout Muslim, is coming to Bethlehem with his Arab Christian wife, Suha, for midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

Bethlehem's second Palestinian Christmas promises to be a bleak affair. According to Mr Freij, who has been mayor for 25 years, the hard-up Palestinian Authority has given them nothing for the celebrations. Nor has organised Christendom.

But the mayor is nothing if not an optimist. He is looking forward to 2000, a Christian holy year. Next spring he plans to launch a $200m appeal in Europe and the Americas to make the run-down, neglected old city worthy of the millennium.

Till then, the good Christians of Finland are sending a Father Christmas to distribute presents in Manger Square next Tuesday night. God rest you merry, gentlemen.