Next stop Jerusalem, vows conquering hero Arafat

Thousands hail the Palestinian leader as he arrives to reclaim Bethlehem from Israeli rule - and upstages Christmas
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The Independent Online
SETTING his seal on the transfer of Bethlehem from Israeli to Palestinian rule, Yasser Arafat made his historic entry into the town yesterday and told thousands of exultant Palestinians in Manger Square that it would soon be the turn of Hebron, Ramallah and "Arab Jerusalem".

Fathers hoisted sons onto shoulders. Young men whistled, gave the V for Victory sign, and chanted that they would redeem the land of Palestine "by blood and soul".

As he upstaged Christmas celebrations with his strident speech from the roof of an Armenian monastery next to the Church of the Nativity, Mr Arafat added a message to the Christian world: "Bethlehem is a liberated city. Bethlehem is a city of peace." But he warned "the Muslims, the Christians and the Jews who live in this holy land" that they still faced a long road to complete the peace process.

The nearest to anything new in his address was his reference to "Arab Jerusalem". This was interptreted as an acknowledgement of an Israeli claim to at least part of the city both nations claim as their capital.

Before heading into Bethlehem, Mr Arafat flew into the village of Beit Sahour, a few miles south, in an Egyptian helicopter. Church bells tolled as it passed overhead. Several thousand people jammed into the schoolyard where the helicopter set down, cheering and shouting as the Palestinian leader waved.

Mr Arafat saluted as a marching band played the Palestinian national anthem "Biladi, Biladi" and inspected an honour guard of police and officials before getting into his car to drive the short distance to Bethlehem.

In Manger Square, thousands of ecstatic Palestinians, most of them Muslims, had gathered since the early hours yesterday. A whole seminar of young women in white headscarves filled a strategic corner beneath a huge portrait of Mr Arafat, two storeys high. They chanted, clapped, ululated and drummed in jubilation.

The square was festooned with pictures of Mr Arafat and Palestinian flags, including a 30ft one hanging down the side of the Church of the Nativity - built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.

After his speech to the multitude from the roof of the Armenian monastery, Mr Arafat was to convene his cabinet in Bethlehem later in the day and to address the people again from the rooftop on Christmas Eve. He and his wife, Suha, were expected to attend Midnight Mass at the Church o the Nativity.

Mrs Arafat and their five-month-old daughter Zahwa had arrived on Friday and ushered in the Christmas celebrations by switching on the Christmas tree lights just outside the church.

Across Manger Square, where the Israeli barricades have been removed from the police station, the boys of the intifada, sporting T-shirts of Arafat's Fatah youth organisation, stamped and marched. They had earned their day. Without their seven-year war of stones, petrol bombs and flaming tyres, the Israeli army might have been presiding over its 29th Bethlehem Christmas.

A large banner in the square read: "Congratulations to our people for the departure of the occupation. May it never return." It was signed by the PLO's mainstream Fatah faction.

The local Scout band added a skirl of bagpipes. A popular Lebanese singer began to croon "Jingle Bells" in Arabic over the public address system, but she was quickly switched off.

Bethlehem is celebrating a double feast this weekend, but Christmas is playing a distinct second fiddle. Portraits of Mr Arafat and the red, white, green and black Palestinian colours have pushed the trees and lights and Holy Family tableaux into a corner. Hawkers were doing a roaring trade yesterday in Yasser balloons.

Foreign pilgrims arriving here in the morning found the Church of the Nativity closed for security reasons. Security for Mr Arafat's appearance, the most public test so far for the Palestinian police, was firm but courteous. The green-uniformed paramilitaries, Kalashnikov automatic rifles at the ready, blue-uniformed police and plain-clothes secret service men were everywhere but were not throwing their weight about. The crowd was good- natured in the warm, summery sunshine.

Elias Freij, the 78-year-old mayor, said: "I have waited a long time for this day." No one was in a mood to spoil it.

Bethlehem was the fifth of six Palestinian towns to be transferred from Israel to the Palestinian Authority by 31 December under the September agreement expanding self-rule, which began in Jericho and the Gaza Strip last year.

Israeli troops pulled out of Bethlehem on Thursday, and 850 Palestinian policemen replaced them. Another 180 arrived yesterday as policemen came out in force to control the masses upon Mr Arafat's arrival.

Just eight kilometres south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is the closest Mr Arafat has ever come to the controversial city, a site of dispute between Israel and the PLO. Both sides want control over East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war, and both want Jerusalem as their capital.