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Yuletide Spirit in Short Supply This Year in Tense Bethlehem

December 24, 1987|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

BETHLEHEM, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — The Christmas tree in Manger Square is, as always, garishly decked out in colored plastic balls and lights formed into the Star of Bethlehem.

But this year, the wary eyes of the few tourists strolling in front of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity seem to linger longer upon the Israeli soldiers slouching on their automatic rifles on the roof of an adjacent building.

After more than two weeks of disturbances in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which have left at least 21 people dead, the Christmas spirit has all but evaporated in the town that Christians revere as the place where Jesus Christ was born.

'Life Is Not Good'

"Never in my life have I experienced a Christmas this bad," said Anta Jarysa, whose clothing store is just off Manger Square. "The (Israeli) occupation is not good, life is not good, nothing in the world seems good. You feel that it's not Christmas."

Such sentiments seem commonplace among residents of Bethlehem, one of the largest Christian communities in the predominantly Arab West Bank. Not only is there considerable sympathy for those who have been killed, but the wave of violence has also cut deeply into tourism, a major source of income here.

"If you are closed by strikes for five or six days before Christmas, how are you going to sell anything?" asked Raymond Khoury, a souvenir shop owner.

Bethlehem's mayor, Elias Freij, responded to growing pressure from the Arab community and, for the first time ever, canceled a traditional Christmas Eve reception for foreign dignitaries and Israeli officials.

"No one is in much of a Christmas mood," Freij said. "How can you have a cocktail party when the blood of your people is being spilled daily?"

Tourist reservations have suddenly dropped, Freij said, and cancellations are still coming in.

Freij expressed annoyance at the U.S. State Department for repeating on Monday a 1982 warning to Americans to avoid traveling to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Nonetheless, Freij said, religious services on Christmas Eve, such as the procession from Jerusalem and midnight Mass, will proceed as planned.

City officials said they expect more than 1,000 Israeli troops, including detachments in civilian clothes, to guard the Christmas observances in Bethlehem.

As in the past, visitors to Manger Square will be subjected to body searches and long waits before being allowed to enter the area.

Already, hundreds of soldiers are patrolling the town, packed into army trucks and in knots of five or six strolling in the ancient town's narrow alleyways.

Bishara E. Awad, president of the Bethlehem Bible College, said that as a result of the Israeli security strictures, he doubts that many of the area's Christian Arab residents will venture out of their homes to attend the celebrations.

"People are staying away," Awad said. "They don't want to be harassed. People don't feel up to celebrating Christmas and the New Year in this atmosphere of violence."

He said that most people have canceled Christmas parties and that even the Boy Scouts have stayed away from Christmas festivities that they had planned for months.

An even grimmer mood prevailed Wednesday in the Dahaisha refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where during the night Israeli troops without warning erected an oil-drum barricade topped with razor wire across the main entrance to the camp.

"This is our Christmas present from the Israeli army," said Abu Nabil, the refugee camp's services officer.

The Israeli security forces maintain that the road was blocked after harassment from the camp, which is already surrounded by 20-foot-high cyclone fences to prevent occupants from throwing stones at the road.

'Raising of Tensions'

Bill Lee, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, which administers the camp, said closing the road and stationing Israeli troops on selected rooftops in the camp represented "a raising of tensions." He said there were no problems at the camp that should have caused the Israelis to react in that manner.

The closing of the road was compared by camp residents to the cutting of an economic lifeline for the 10,000 residents.

"I'm completely out of business," said Ibrahim Radwan, who ran a plumbing shop at the front of the camp. He showed a visitor a warehouse full of water tanks, which are now too large to fit through the narrow opening in the camp's entrance left by the Israelis when they put up the barricade. The road was closed in 1982 but reopened after two years of negotiations.

Although the birthrate has recently given Bethlehem's Muslims a majority for the first time, residents said there was no suggestion that any of the recent anger reflected religious animosity.

"There will be no trouble in Bethlehem for Christmas," Mayor Freij predicted confidently. "It's not a question of fear, but everybody still respects Christmas."

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