Israel under pressure to let Arafat attend Mass

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The Independent Online

A senior European Union diplomat said today that Israel is losing some goodwill in Europe because of its decision to bar Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending Christmas Mass in Bethlehem.

European and US officials were trying on Monday to persuade Israeli officials to rescind the travel ban.

However, Israeli officials said they would not let Arafat travel to Bethlehem unless he arrested the assassins of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, who was killed by members of a radical PLO faction in October.

Arafat has been marooned in the West Bank town of Ramallah, 12 miles north of Bethlehem, by an Israeli blockade. The Palestinian leader has attended Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem every year since 1995, when Israel handed several West Bank towns ot the Palestinians.

The Belgian ambassador to Israel, Wilfred Geens, speaking for the European Union, noted that Arafat was the only Muslim leader who made a point of attending Christmas Mass.

"This is of great symbolic importance and is a testimony to religious tolerance," Geens told The Associated Press.

Geens said he told Israeli Foreign Ministry officials that Israel's refusal to permit Arafat to go to Bethlehem "is an uncessary complicating of the situation that has, after all, been quieter over the last few days."

"We believe that this decision spoils a lot of positive points that Israel has gained in European opinion in the past few weeks," Geens said. Earlier this month, the European Union had toughened its stance toward Arafat, demanding that he do more to crack down on militants.

The Belgian ambassador urged Israel to rescind the travel ban. "Bearing in mind the spirit of Christmas which prevails in the West, it would look very bad if Arafat were prevented from attending the Mass," Geens said.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has also asked Israel to rescind the decision.

However, there were no signs Israel would relent. The Israeli military reinforced troops at checkpoints ringing Ramallah on Monday to prevent Arafat from defying the travel ban.

Arafat was evasive on Monday when asked whether he would try to get to Bethlehem even without Israeli approval.