Manger is a long way from peace

At midnight the Manger Square crowd heaved. A thousand beer bottles scrunched under foot as the sea of baseball caps and leather jackets turned to see a robed figure, flickering across a screen framed by barbed wire rolls. Magnified in solemn cer emony, live from the Church of the Nativity across the square, midnight mass was being transmitted on a giant television screen fixed to the Israeli police station.

The glow from the screen lit up the figures of Israeli soldiers standing, guns on shoulders, on every rooftop all around the square. And opposite fireworks and fairy lights lit up the many smiling faces of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, strung out on a banner of plastic Palestinian flags.

"Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus," came the words of the Patriarch over the loudspeaker system. The crowd grunted and whistled. Tourists hovered nervously in corners.

This was Christmas in Israeli-occupied Bethlehem, in the year of Israeli-Palestinian peace, 1994. There had been hopes that it might be different this year. Israeli forces should have withdrawn from Bethlehem by now according to the peace agreements. Bu

t there were more soldiers on the streets on Saturday night than at any Christmas since the start of the occupation in 1967.

"We are still like visitors, not citizens, of our own town. There is nothing Christian about this," said Jaber Seadeh, an elderly Palestinian. A soldier lounged on the barricade prodding a Palestinian youth and another youth was dragged off inside the police station.

There were differences this year, however. above the Church of the Nativity spire there were fireworks, and from the loudspeakers came the tunes of Lovers' Lane United Methodist Choir from Dallas. But as ever, tourists with "invitations" to enter the church for midnight mass were checked by soldiers and shovelled through a line of metal detectors erected outside the basilica. "Its for your own security. You never know when there may be a terrorist attack," explained a young Israeli major.

Kathy Sipes, a 17-year-old member of the Orpheus choir from Chicago, said she had been grabbed" by men in the crowd and was scared. She didn't want to come to Bethlehem again. ``I didn't understand what they were saying but they made noises at me," she said, looking out over the seething mass of youths.

In the office of the Bethlehem municipality, Hanna Nasser, the deputy mayor, said the crowds were bigger for Christmas this year, perhaps because the people hoped this might be the last Christmas under occupation. Elias Freij, the mayor and minister of tourism in the Palestinian authority was taken ill on Friday and unable to attend a Bethlehem Christmas for the first time in 24 years.

The Israeli security presence had made no allowances for the "so-called peace", said Mr Nasser. "We have soldiers on the roof of the municipality. They are everywhere. We have never had trouble in Bethlehem on Christmas day, but the Israelis think it is their reponsibility to be here for our security."

t( A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at a Jerusalem bus stop yesterday, injuring 13 people but failing in his attempt to kill Israeli soldiers whose packed bus pulled away seconds before the blast, Reuter reports. The armed wing of Hamas movement claimed the attack and identified the dead bomber as Ayman Radi, 21. A Palestinian official said Radi had been a policeman in Gaza for several months.