Army withdraws to outskirts of Bethlehem ahead of Christmas

The Israeli army withdrew forces from the center of the Palestinian town of Bethlehem in order to allow residents to freely celebrate Christmas. Military officials said they would allow Israeli Arabs to travel to Bethlehem as well as foreign tourists, pilgrims and Palestinian Christians with special permits. But Muslim Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is being prevented again this year from attending Christmas Mass.

"In recent days, Israel Defense Forces have re-deployed at the outskirts of the city in order to allow Christian celebrations to take place," said an IDF spokesman, who said the pullback began Sunday morning.

The army said no troops would remain in Bethlehem during Christmas week as long as there were no intelligence reports of impending terror attacks against Israelis emanating from the town. Security forces will retain a tight closure on Bethlehem from the town's outskirts.

"We will make every effort to facilitate the celebrations," IDF officers said. "There is now no curfew on Bethlehem and we hope to keep it that way. We shall facilitate efforts to allow anybody to enter who wants to worship. Where we need not be, we will not be."

Witnesses said troops had pulled back to about 200 yards from the Church of the Nativity in the center of the town, where local Christian dignitaries were to attend Christmas Eve mass Tuesday night, Reuters reported. No troops were seen patrolling the town Tuesday morning.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's adviser Ra'anan Gissin said that although Israel would like to allow greater freedom, Bethlehem had been the origin of 15 attacks on Israelis in the last year, including a suicide bus bombing last month that prompted the reoccupation.

"It's regrettable," he said, "because we are doing all in our effort to provide for normalcy in that city, which has been a center for worship by Christians and a tourist attraction. Unfortunately we don't see any effort to cooperate."

Yesterday, speaking from Ramallah, Arafat blasted Israel and said, "Is it fair that the whole world celebrates Christmas in freedom while our people in Palestine and Bethlehem are banned from celebrating Christmas?"

Arafat, who was barred by Israel from attending Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for the second year in a row, added, "As the whole world adorns Christmas trees, Bethlehem... and the rest of the Palestinian cities and villages... are suffering from the darkness, siege, destruction, killing, arrests and abuses against our people at checkpoints."

Israeli troops returned to Bethlehem on November 22, one day after a suicide bomber killed 11 people on a bus in Jerusalem's Kiryat Menachem neighborhood. Previously, officials had hinted that the troops would withdraw from the city before Christmas.

Ellis Shuman Israelinsider

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