'Saddest Christmas Ever' in Bethlehem

Updated 9:53 AM ET December 25, 2002

By Mark Heinrich

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinians marked what some called the saddest Christmas ever in the biblical city of Bethlehem, walking to Mass through cold rainy streets bereft of holiday cheer after weeks of Israeli military occupation.

Hundreds of Palestinians and a few hardy tourists and pilgrims attended Christmas Day services in the ancient Church of the Nativity, the reputed site of Jesus's birth, but found little joy from an Israeli army pullback for the occasion.

Manger Square was a brightly lit hub of religious pageantry with a towering Christmas tree in happier days. But the only color this time came from trinkets in the arms of roving vendors and in the windows of empty souvenir shops.

Two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence have scared off most of the thousands of pilgrims that once flocked to the rose-hued West Bank city, and Palestinian residents have been largely stuck in their homes under military curfew for a month.

"It is the saddest Christmas ever for us here," Estella Mubarak, a 60-year-old grandmother, said in the 1,700-year-old shrine built where Christians believe Jesus was born. "The worst thing is we cannot afford to buy any presents for our children."

There were no Yuletide lights or ornaments to usher in the season, but some Palestinians said such gloom was appropriate because to dress up Bethlehem now would have glossed over the harsh effect of Israeli occupation in the eyes of the world.

Israeli tanks and troops reoccupied Bethlehem on November 22 after a Palestinian suicide bomber from the city killed 11 Israelis on a bus in nearby Jerusalem.

Other West Bank cities have been under the Israeli army's thumb for months in response to a Palestinian militant campaign for statehood in territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and now fragmented by Jewish settlement.

ATMOSPHERE OF DECAY

Most of Bethlehem's souvenir shops have gone out of business and hotels have closed for lack of guests. Uncollected garbage litters the winding, narrow streets. Unkempt children beg foreign visitors for money around Manger Square.

"We have no choice but to come here to pray for peace and freedom but I see no hope for the near future," said retired academic Elias Maria as he emerged from the Nativity church's grotto where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus.

"We're all very sad. We prayed to God simply to help us. We still hope peace with justice will come some day, since without hope there is no life," said Linda Liddawi, 42, a widowed mother of two who said her house was smashed by Israeli rocket fire.

Mervat Murra, 28, gave birth to her fifth child two months ago and she cradled the infant while attending morning mass.

"It may seem questionable to some to bring children into the terrible world we have now but without a new generation we could never pass on our struggle for our land, and connect our people to a better future. It would be Jesus's wish," she said.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was but a ghost of Christmas past at Midnight Mass in the Nativity church, his empty chair draped with a checkered Palestinian headdress symbolizing his struggle for an independent homeland.

Israel for the second straight year barred him from making the short trip from his half-demolished West Bank headquarters in Ramallah. It accuses Arafat of fomenting violence in the Palestinian bid for independence, an allegation he denies.

After Vatican pleas, Israel said troops would stay out of Bethlehem during the Christmas holiday but whether this meant two days or the traditional 12 days of Christmas was unknown.

Many of the thousands who crammed into St Catherine's Catholic church within the Nativity compound for midnight mass were foreigners but the Christmas morning rite was a mainly local affair.

The compound still bears perforations from Israeli gunfire in a 40-day siege of armed militants who slipped inside last spring during an Israeli offensive that followed suicide bombings.

RELIGIOUS APPEAL TO ISRAELIS

The Latin Patriarch in the Holy Land made strong appeals in sermons at both masses for an end to strife and freedom for Palestinians from Israeli domination.

"We say no to violence, no to terrorism and no to oppression, but we ask you (Israelis) to understand the reason for the violence and this is occupation," Michel Sabbah said.

"Blood has been flowing in your cities and streets, but the key to solving this conflict is in your hands. By your actions so far, you have crushed the Palestinian people but you still have not achieved peace."

Violence did not let up elsewhere on Christmas Day. Israeli soldiers killed a senior militant from the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, according to Palestinian and Israeli sources.

At least 1,737 Palestinians and 671 Israelis have been killed since Palestinians launched an uprising in September 2000 after negotiations on Palestinian statehood hit an impasse.