Bethlehem - the last place you would want to be for Christmas

CHRISTMAS cheer is hard to find in this year in Bethlehem.

Inside the West Bank town's Church of Nativity - the birthplace of Jesus Christ - preparations were being made for Midnight Mass, overshadowed by worsening violence between Palestinian factions and an international aid boycott.

But outside in Manger Square, an Arab Christian youth scoffed when asked about the expected attendance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"Bethlehem is the last place in the world where I would want to be for Christmas," he said. "Hamas and Fatah should remember the enemy is not each other but Israel, and the longer they fight one another the better it will be for the Israelis."

The Palestinian president's visit to the beleaguered town comes after gunmen from his Fatah faction spent the last week battling their Hamas counterparts on the streets in Gaza and the West Bank.

Years of feuding and rivalry between the two Palestinian factions came to a head when Abbas called for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections in an attempt to remove the Hamas-led government.

Abbas and his Fatah advisers believe such a move will allow for the establishment of a government that would be more acceptable to the West and thus end an international aid boycott in place since the Islamist movement came to power in March.

Hamas immediately rejected the Palestinian president's call, describing it as a coup. However, Abbas has yet to name an election date and both sides are still talking of last-minute attempts to establish a national unity government.

Inside the Bethlehem Peace Centre located in Manger Square, its director, Michael Nasser, tries to remain resolutely upbeat: "In view of what's going on at the moment, it's important for people always to remember that this is where the 'Prince of Peace' was born.

"What's happening elsewhere in Palestine should hopefully not affect us here since this town is not only for the Palestinians but is there for the whole Christian world."

For Christian pilgrims making their way to Bethlehem, they have to pass through Israel's controversial separation barrier that now loops its way around three sides of the town, cutting it off from the southern edge of Jerusalem normally only a five-minute drive away.

Much of the barrier surrounding Bethlehem is an eight-metre tall concrete wall and while foreigners are able to visit the town, local residents cannot leave without applying for a permit from Israeli authorities.

Israeli officials say the barrier is necessary to stop Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel and that it could be re-routed or torn down if violence ceases and peace talks resume. But Palestinians say the barrier's route is a de facto border and its existence prevents the creation of the viable state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in 1967.

Before the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, Bethlehem attracted more than 90,000 pilgrims a month. At Christmas in 2005, about 20,000 visitors made their way there. However, its mayor, Dr Victor Batarseh, said the town would be "extremely lucky if we come anywhere close to that figure this year".

Of Bethlehem's 30,000 residents, the number of Christians has dwindled from about 85% in 1948 to just 25%. The Palestinian uprising, along with the barrier's construction, has taken its toll on the Christian population, who due to large diaspora communities elsewhere are able to emigrate to places such as the United States, Latin America and Canada.

In addition, the Islamisation of Palestinian society has weakened the Christian community's position, although Bartaseh denied that pressure from Muslims was a contributing factor.

"The [Israeli] occupation is solely the cause of Christian families leaving here and seeking a life elsewhere," he said. "We happily live in co-existence with our Arab Muslim brothers."

Bartaseh, who was recently quoted as saying there was a danger of there being no Christians living in Bethlehem at all within a generation, was far more circumspect when approached by Scotland on Sunday, saying: "Of course, there will always be Christians here as long as we have hope."

The town's Christian community did receive a boost last week when a delegation of British church leaders, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, made a Christmas pilgrimage as a move of solidarity with its Christian residents.

Williams condemned the barrier, saying it was "a sign not simply of the passing problem in the politics of one region; it is a sign of the things which are deeply wrong in the human heart itself."

"We're here to say that the sufferings of the people here are ours too," said Williams, joined by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor; the Free Churches' Moderator in England, the Reverend David Coffey and the Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain, Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian.

"We want to do what we can to alleviate them and we hope to see a Bethlehem that is open for all pilgrims," he told a gathering at the Bethlehem Peace Centre.

However, while he was speaking, the violence continued.

On Friday, Fatah gunmen opened fire on Hamas members preparing for a rally in the West Bank city of Nablus, wounding at least nine.

Gunfights also erupted near the Hamas-controlled foreign ministry and President Abbas's Gaza residence. It died down as Muslim clerics and other mediators worked to restore a ceasefire. Abbas was not in Gaza at the time.

On Friday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas urged gunmen to spare Palestinian blood, and said government officials were working to bring the violence under control.

In the meantime, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, were meeting last night to discuss the thorny issue of the release of Palestinian prisoners.

It has been hoped a deal on the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners could be concluded by the Islamic festival of Id al-Adha that falls this coming Friday.

However, sources in Olmert's office have said that the prime minister was unwilling to release any Palestinian prisoners unless Shalit is set free beforehand.

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