Relaymedia

Bethlehem Residents Fear Cancellation of Christmas Celebrations

Nov 27, 2002 11:46 AM EST

The curfew in Bethlehem enters its fifth day on Tuesday, amid fears that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is planning to stay at least until the end of the year.

Many residents expressed concern the military presence would lead to the cancellation of Christmas and New Year celebrations.

"It looks like they are preparing to stay here for a long period," a municipal official said. "It's not clear if we will be able to hold religious services for Christmas. The army has told us that it plans to stay here until it achieves all its goals."

Preparations for Christmas and New Year celebrations began almost immediately after the IDF left Bethlehem in August. Life has since returned to near normality, with restaurants and cafes open until late at night. For many merchants, this was a sign of hope that the tourists and pilgrims would finally reappear in Manger Square.

But last Thursday's suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem, in which 11 people were killed and scores wounded, marked the end of the short-lived mood of optimism in Bethlehem.

"As soon as we heard that the suicide bomber was from here, we knew that the worst was yet to come," said Omar Odeh, owner of a grocery near Manger Square. "Everyone here knew that within a short time Israel would reoccupy Bethlehem. People rushed to withdraw cash from banks, and many lined up outside bakeries and groceries to buy food supplies."

The streets of Bethlehem and the surrounding towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahur were deserted Monday, as IDF jeeps and armored personnel carriers enforced a strict round-the-clock curfew. The IDF has declared the area a closed military zone, but that hasn't prevented journalists from finding their way into the city.

They were not the only ones to discover the "bypass" road on a hilltop near Beit Jala. A few Palestinians and foreign residents have also been using the side road since the IDF recaptured the city. They often hire private ambulances to take them past the IDF jeeps and armored vehicles.

Others have discovered another safe way of avoiding the soldiers: hanging "TV" signs or UN flags on their cars.

Abu Ibrahim, who has braved the curfew to help journalists enter the city, said he has no other choice, "because I must feed my children."

A resident of Aida refugee camp north of the city, the father of eight said: "I know it's dangerous to drive around during the curfew, but nothing will stop me from earning a living. I must admit that the soldiers are very understanding and turn a blind eye, because they can see that a person like me is only looking for ways to feed his children.

"People here are very angry with those who are launching the suicide attacks. These attacks are causing great damage to our people. Islam does not approve of the killing of innocent civilians. The Koran even forbids suicide."

Many in Bethlehem blamed "outsiders" for providing the IDF with an excuse. Na'el Abu Hilayel, the Hamas suicide bomber who blew himself up on the Egged bus in Kiryat Menahem, is originally from Dura, south of Hebron. He and his family moved to the Bethlehem area a few months ago.

"The Hebronites have invaded our city," complained a Christian businessman. "Statistics show that almost all those responsible for the terror attacks are not from Bethlehem. In the last few years, many families from Hebron and nearby villages have settled here and in Beit Sahur and Beit Jala.

"In many cases, they grab land owned by Christian families that are abroad. Others are exploiting the hard economic situation to offer cash for houses, land, and businesses. In a few years, Christian pilgrims visiting Bethlehem will have to bring their own priests with them."

By Khaled Abu Toameh
[email protected]