Christmas gloom in Bethlehem

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The Independent Online
ELIAS FREIJ, the Mayor of Bethlehem, is despondent as his town prepares to celebrate Christmas. In previous years he has often been gloomy, and even angry. Christmas has never been easy in Israeli-occupied Bethlehem. Not since British Mandate days, before the founding of Israel in 1948, does Mr Freij, 75, recall a really joyous Christmas in Bethlehem. 'Then there was no propaganda, no soldiers, it was just a family affair.'

Since the occupation began in 1967, the soldiers with guns outside the Church of the Nativity have blunted the spirituality of midnight Mass. And since the outbreak of the intifada, Palestinian factions have banned local Christians from festivities as a protest at the occupation.

But this year Mr Freij's mood is bleaker than ever. Christmas 1993 was to have been so different. The peace accord was to have brought joy back to Bethlehem. For Mr Freij the agreement was a personal vindication of his long-held faith in a negotiated settlement. He has often been vilified by extreme Palestinians for his pragmatism. When the accord was signed, pragmatism appeared to have won the day.

To mark the event the mayor planned to 'reinstitute Christmas' by staging traditional Christmas Eve processions, and decorating the town. 'The message of Bethlehem is peace. Christmas is peace. On Christmas Eve we want hundreds of millions to be looking towards Bethlehem. We have to send out a message of support for peace to all corners of the world,' he says.

He promised the local 35,000 Christians that he would erect a real Christmas tree in Manger Square. And he sought to revive spirits by hoisting a Palestinian flag over the municipal building.

Instead, peace has been held up, as the Israeli withdrawal has been delayed. Israel's Ministry of Agriculture refused to allow the tree through Ben-Gurion airport, saying it would breach plant health regulations. 'Who would stop a Christmas tree coming to the Christmas capital of the world?' asks Mr Freij. Instead, cheap tinsel adorns a few cypress trees around the square.

On Wednesday the mayor was told by the Israeli military governor to pull down the Palestinian flag. It could only be flown from private homes, not from institutions, said the governor. 'The flag is our national Palestinian flag. As long as Palestinians and Israelis have exchanged letters of mutual recognition there is no reason why we should not fly it,' the mayor says.

Yesterday, the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, telephoned Mr Freij from Tunis and ordered that the festivities go ahead with Palestinian flags flying. Two PLO militants put four Palestinian flags on the municipal building. And in Bethlehem Square the Israeli army defused a small pipe-bomb planted near teh Church of the Nativity. It was unclear who placed the device.

The hopes that pilgrims would flock back to Bethlehem have faded. The trinket shops are overflowing with unsold cribs, carved donkeys and camels. Mr Freij says he believes the violence since the accord was signed has deterred pilgrims. While the Israeli Ministry of Tourism claims that 50,000 tourists are due to arrive in Bethlehem, there is hardly one on the streets.

'The people had expected so much. They expected to have seen real change in their lives by now,' says Mr Freij. 'Instead they see the Israeli army getting tougher and the settlers turning their hands against us. People are very disappointed. Merchants had stocked up for Christmas. There is a lot of poverty here. Now they are asking, if this is peace, what is meant by peace?'

Above all, Mr Freij fears confrontation on Christmas Eve. Opposition groups, including Islamic factions, have asked to take part in the mayor's Christmas processsion, seeing a chance for a political demonstration. 'I do not want this to be a political demonstration,' he says. 'I do not want a confrontation. I expect they will bring Palestinian flags. I do not know what will be the reaction of the army.'

(Photograph omitted)

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