BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrived on the doorstep of Jerusalem on Saturday to celebrate Christmas in the city regarded as the birthplace of Jesus, now under Palestinian control for the first time.
Speaking to tens of thousands of Palestinians from the rooftop of the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, Arafat told doubters among his ranks to look at how far he had come in the peace process with Israelis and to keep their sights fixed on Jerusalem, a few minutes up the road.
"For those who said, 'Gaza first and last,' we say, 'Gaza first and then Arab Jerusalem, to an independent state,' " Arafat said.
The largely Muslim crowd, gathered beneath a fusion of Christmas decorations and Palestinian flags, roared its approval.
Under a 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Arafat first took control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho. A second agreement between Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before the Israeli leader was slain last month will give the Palestinians control of seven more West Bank cities and hundreds of villages and paved the way for the first Palestinian elections, set for Jan. 20.
The two sides are to begin negotiations over control of Jerusalem and other outstanding issues in May.
Israelis insist that they will never redivide Jerusalem and give up the Arab half of the city conquered in the 1967 Mideast War.
Arafat flew by helicopter from the Gaza Strip to the town of Beit Sahur and, surrounded by Palestinian security officers, drove the few blocks to Bethlehem.
He made several attempts to be conciliatory in his speech, calling Bethlehem a "city of peace" and saying that it should serve as an example.
"My brothers, we are now in a historic period in the life of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation. Yes, Muslims, Christians and Jews on this Holy Land created by the Lord," he said.
While hailing the Israeli pullout after 28 years, many Christian residents of Bethlehem and other West Bank towns have expressed concerns about living under the rule of a Muslim majority.
Arafat, a Muslim who married a Christian-born woman, appeared to be speaking to Christian residents Saturday when he opened his speech quoting in Arabic from the biblical book of Luke, "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill toward men."
Christ, he said, was "a Palestinian prophet."
The Muslim call to prayer rang out on loudspeakers against the sound of church bells and the pounding of drums from young Palestinian marching bands in the square.
Bethlehem is about two-thirds Muslim, and the celebrants in Manger Square were overwhelmingly Muslim.
Security was extremely tight, with uniformed and plainclothes police watching the crowd for weapons.
Access to the Church of the Nativity was restricted for several hours leading up to Arafat's speech. And yet there was an air of gaiety in the plaza that many residents and visitors said they had never felt in the years under Israeli control.
A huge portrait of Arafat hung from the New Tourist Shopping Center welcoming the Palestinian leader, and the red, green, black and white Palestinian flag draped the facade of the Church of the Nativity.
The square was tightly packed, with the ebullient crowd overflowing down side streets where vendors sold hot falafel in pita, sunflower seeds and pistachio nuts.
In Christmases past, they said, there was always the tense expectation of rock-throwing or shooting, a fear of confrontation between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers or police.
"In other years, it was really all European or American tourists here, and the local folks weren't really allowed in like this," said the Rev. Sandy Olewine, a pastor from the Holman Methodist Church in Los Angeles who is doing research in Israel.
"The feeling in the air is very different," said Nancy Bowen, a professor of Old Testament studies from Richmond, Ind. "Last year we came in a bus with Israeli police escorts on the bus and in two jeeps in front of us. This year, we just walked in."
Originally, Arafat's rally had been scheduled for Christmas Eve. He changed his plans reportedly after Roman Catholic Church officials said they feared that the holy day would be turned into a political event.
Arafat's wife, Suha, arrived in Bethlehem on Friday to light the main Christmas tree near the Church of the Nativity.
Although she converted to Islam before marrying Arafat, she prayed in the church on Saturday and laid her baby daughter in front of the place where tradition says Jesus was born.
"The baby, of course, is a Muslim, but there is a tolerance between Christians and Muslims," Suha Arafat said.
She said her husband represented tolerance and was carrying out Christ's "message of peace."
In the square outside, Louris Odeh, a resident of neighboring Beit Sahur, was among the Christian minority who turned out to greet Arafat.
"This holiday is like two--Christmas and Arafat's coming. It is the first time we have come here without passing through an Israeli army checkpoint," said Odeh, waiting with her daughter and grandson.
After the rally, Arafat held his weekly "cabinet" meeting in Bethlehem, then effectively dissolved the body to allow members to run in next month's elections.
"We officially resigned tonight," Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said. "This was the last Palestinian Authority meeting, and the meeting was sort of a farewell party."
Arafat and Suha are scheduled to stay in Bethlehem for midnight Mass tonight.
"This is a historic visit. It is the first one of its kind in the history of Palestine," Mayor Elias Freij said in a live broadcast on Voice of Palestine radio.
The radio quoted Arafat as saying that from the roof of Church of the Nativity he had been able to see "the light at the end of the tunnel, the turrets of mosques and churches of Jerusalem."