Norway's tree gives Israel the needle

ISRAEL has refused the gift of a Christmas tree from Norway, saying it may be infected with disease and might 'contaminate' Israeli trees.

Earlier this year, it was Norway that hosted the secret talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which led to the new peace accords. Deep in the Norwegian pine forests understanding was born between old enemies.

Jogan Jorgen Holst, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, offered to send the 14ft tree to Bethlehem, to symbolise his country's role in the peace process. But bureaucrats in the Israeli Department of Agriculture have vetoed the gesture. 'One diseased tree could devastate the entire tree population in the area,' they said.

Elias Freij, the Christian mayor of Bethlehem, has asked Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, to intervene. 'It would have had special meaning for us,' he said. 'Norway did such an excellent job bringing peace. I don't believe they would send us an infected tree.'

Bethlehem, where 40 per cent of the population is Christian, has suffered economic hardship this year, and cannot afford lavish decorations. Since 1967 the town has been under Israeli occupation.

Christmas is celebrated under the eyes of thousands of Israeli soldiers. Once the new agreement is put into effect, Bethlehem will come under Palestinian self-rule and military forces will leave.

For now, Bethlehem is ruled by Israeli military law, so the Norwegian tree would have had to be flown in through Ben Gurion airport, and been subject to Israeli agricultural checks.

'Christmas means glory to God in the highest, and peace and goodwill to all men,' said Mayor Freij. 'This would have been a symbolic tree for us, and would have the people that peace really is coming.'