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Amid Violence, Silent Nights for Bethlehem

December 23, 2000|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The story of this Christmas, Palestinians say, lies not in the decorated tree tucked into a corner of Manger Square's Peace Center, nor in the creches from churches around the world displayed there. It is in the Palestinian children's drawings that are hanging in the center's main auditorium.

Dozens of crayon sketches show villages being strafed by helicopter gunships, soldiers pointing guns at stone-throwing children, tanks rolling through the streets, and armed and masked Palestinian fighters. This is what youths ages 6 to 18 came up with when asked to illustrate their concept of human rights, in a project funded by UNICEF.

"These pictures say a lot about the reality these children live," said Dr. Elia Awad, head of the Palestine Red Crescent Society's mental health department. "All of them are talking about their survival rights. They are scared to death."

This Christmas was supposed to have been a special one, because the start of the three-day Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, will coincide with Christmas Day or shortly thereafter.

"There was going to be something for everyone," said Nabil Kassis, head of Bethlehem 2000, a ministry established by the Palestinian Authority to promote the biblical town's millennium celebrations. Christians and Muslims were looking forward to celebrating the holidays in tandem and attracting visitors from around the world to the festivities, and Kassis thought that Bethlehem would have a record-breaking year for tourism.

Instead, here in the town where it all began, Christmas is expected to be a sad and awkward affair. The essence of the holiday--hope--is in such scarce supply that Palestinian Christians are forgoing public celebrations and marking the birth of Jesus behind closed doors.

Manger Square, a broad stone plaza outside the Church of the Nativity, is nearly empty. No lights blink in its cypress trees, and no shoppers browse through stores that normally would be doing a brisk trade in olive wood ornaments and other seasonal baubles.

After nearly three months of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, only residents and visiting journalists are strolling the plaza this season. Pilgrims and tourists who flock here each year to enjoy international choirs and have their postcards stamped with a Bethlehem postmark on Christmas Eve are nowhere to be found. Hotels and restaurants stand empty, their staffs laid off weeks ago.

Diplomatic missions, businesses and organizations have canceled holiday parties and receptions. Families spread across the territories whose members normally would visit each other are cut off by Israeli army closures of towns and cities.

Still, Kassis said media reports that Christmas has been canceled here are false.

"Christmas will come this year. Christmas has been taking place here since Christ was born," he said Monday at a news conference. "But this year it will consist of the religious festivities," and the public celebration will be minimal.

In part, the lack of public celebration is a logistical necessity, Kassis said. Choirs that were scheduled to perform during December canceled, too scared to venture into territories where more than 325 people have been killed and thousands wounded since the end of September.

Even had they come, Kassis said, they might not have made it past roadblocks. Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak backed away from a threat to close off Bethlehem, but the army is requiring pilgrims to disembark from Israeli tour buses at the roadblock outside the town, walk about 100 yards and get on Palestinian buses to reach the center of Bethlehem.

Kassis and other Palestinians said the decision to avoid displays of holiday cheer is also a political and emotional gesture of mourning by a traumatized society that views itself as living under siege.

There is vehement disagreement over who is to blame for this dismal Christmas. Israelis say it is Palestinians who began a wave of violent demonstrations in late September. Palestinians blame Israel, pointing to the army's massive use of force.

The gloom extends beyond Bethlehem. In the West Bank town of Ramallah, the windows of Hussary's Bookshop are bare. The Santa who usually greets children outside the shop has not been seen. The artificial Christmas trees that normally stand framed by colored lights in the windows are tucked away inside the shop. The Hussary family began selling decorations only when some customers asked for them.

"It is not nice that a funeral is passing by and you have lights up and a Santa outside," said Mary Hussary, who runs the shop with her siblings. Although they make up only a tiny portion of the overwhelmingly Muslim Palestinian society, Christians like Hussary normally feel comfortable celebrating their holidays among their neighbors. But this year, she said, too many families are grieving.

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