BETHLEHEM, West Bank — A few spots of Christmas color lighted a battle-scarred background. Bagpipes and cymbals wailed and crashed in the streets, red ornaments dangled from a towering spruce tree and a few sprigs of holly shimmered on old limestone balconies.
Children crowded Manger Square on Wednesday, but almost all were locals. Few religious pilgrims chose to worship in this war zone.
Christmas arrives during a winter of frozen hopes in Christ's birthplace. The local economy is in tatters, the ancient olive groves and vineyards outside of town are likely to be cut away by Israel's new barrier, and tension is slowly rising as Palestinian militants from across the West Bank seek shelter in Bethlehem.
"Don't Strangulate Bethlehem," read the banners strung on City Hall in hopes of grabbing the world's attention during the holiday festivities. "The Holy Land Doesn't Need Walls, but Bridges." And near a massive portrait of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: "Don't Convert Bethlehem Into a Ghetto."
Centuries after Bethlehem secured its place in the popular imagination as a humble sanctuary for a frightened Jewish couple who were expecting a child, this biblical city has become a refuge for hunted Palestinian militants who've been quietly migrating here since Israeli soldiers pulled out over the summer.
The day before Christmas Eve, the Bethlehem commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group with ties to Arafat, sat in an idling sedan at the edge of Manger Square, slumped low in his thick jacket. The trunk of his car was stocked with a tangle of M-16 rifles. Abu Hussein was relatively comfortable.
"I'm sitting here talking to you, and the people can see me," he said. "This wouldn't have happened before, with the Israelis."
But even in Bethlehem, living on the lam isn't easy. Hussein stays awake at night and sleeps in one of various safe houses during the day. He eats cold meals, mostly, and says he's always nervous.
Still, he enjoys a certain freedom in Bethlehem under the watch of Palestinian troops, with whom he says he enjoys an "excellent, excellent, excellent" relationship.
"With the Palestinian police, it's mutual respect. We visit them and they visit us. We're all under the instructions of the president," he said, referring to Arafat.
"Here we can walk around, we can drive around," said Abu Diya, a fugitive from Hebron who sought sanctuary in Bethlehem five months ago. On Wednesday, he slipped out among the crowds to watch the Palestinian Christian marching bands step high in white boots, pounding their drums until their faces were slick with sweat.
Israel's complaints that Bethlehem has become a sanctuary for militants on the run are accurate, Palestinian security officials say. "Some have come in, but they're Palestinians," said Majdi Atari, Bethlehem's director of security. "If they're respecting the law, we leave them alone."
When Israeli tanks wended their way out of Bethlehem's center last summer, it was meant to be a gesture of good faith. Along with Jericho, Bethlehem was to be an oasis of Palestinian autonomy amid an occupation that binds most of the West Bank into a network of Israeli patrols, snipers' nests and checkpoints.
But people in Bethlehem say it hasn't worked out that way.
"Whatever the Israelis try to tell you, it's nonsense," said Ahmed Aid, a Bethlehem commander with the Palestinian security forces. "The occupation is still here. I don't have any control, and our citizens are still suffering at the checkpoints."
Although the people of Bethlehem no longer see Israeli military trucks, green uniforms and young soldiers slinging machine guns in their ancient streets, the troops are still hunkered down in an impenetrable ring around the city.
To enter or leave town is a laborious -- and risky -- endeavor. These days, most people have learned not to bother.
"We've even forgotten about going to Jerusalem -- and that's supposed to be our sister city," said Manal Hawash, a 31-year-old mother who stood near Manger Square on Wednesday, watching her two sons march in the annual parade.
Hawash has left Bethlehem only once since the intifada against the occupation began in September 2000. Her husband, a schoolteacher, needed emergency ear surgery and went to a hospital in Jerusalem. Doctors had given her documents to help her cross the Israeli checkpoint, but she was turned away. She ended up creeping through the fields.
"The people have lost hope, and now they're even starting to lose faith," said Bethlehem Gov. Zuhair Manasra, throwing a chin to indicate the families who lined Manger Square to greet Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah. "Look at them. They're not happy. They're not smiling."
On Christmas Eve, Palestinians leaders postponed peace talks with Israel, deeply angry over this week's raid into the Gaza Strip, which left nine Palestinians dead and dozens wounded.