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Arafat goes to bethlehem

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Sunday December 23 2:05 PM ET

Arafat Says He Will Go to Bethlehem

By GREG MYRE, Associated Press Writer

JERUSALEM (AP) - Yasser Arafat vowed Sunday to defy an
Israeli order barring him from Christmas Eve celebrations in
Bethlehem, declaring he would make his annual pilgrimage to
Jesus' birthplace even if he has to walk to the stone plaza in
Manger Square.

Arafat and the Israelis appeared headed for a showdown
Monday evening that seemed to capture the convoluted nature
of the conflict: the Jewish state banned Arafat, a Muslim, from
attending a Christian religious service in a town that is under
Arafat's control.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Security Cabinet voted 8-6 to
slap the restriction on Arafat, saying he had failed to ``dismantle
Palestinian terror groups or stop terror attacks against Israel.''

Arafat, who has effectively been confined to the West Bank
town of Ramallah in recent weeks, said, ``no one has the right
to prevent us from fulfilling our duty to God, despite all kinds of
weapons and M-16s that (the Israelis) have.''

In Bethlehem, several hundred Palestinians held a candlelight
rally in front of the Church of the Nativity, protesting the Israeli
ban on Arafat's visit. Some of the demonstrators carried
posters bearing pictures of Arafat, more of the posters were
hung at the entrance to the church itself, which marks the
traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Ramallah and Bethlehem are only 12 miles apart. Arafat said he
was prepared to make the journey on foot - an unlikely trip that
would take him past Israeli tanks and troops blocking the roads
leading in and out of both towns.

There were indications, however, of ongoing contacts involving
Western diplomats in an attempt to work out a compromise.

Arafat has attended Christmas Eve festivities in Bethlehem
every year since 1995, when the town was turned over to the
Palestinian Authority, which Arafat heads.

The Mideast fighting has dealt a crushing blow to Bethlehem,
where the 30,000 Palestinian residents are roughly half-Muslim
and half-Christian. The town, just south of Jerusalem, is heavily
dependent on Christian tourists from around the world.

The pilgrims stayed home last Christmas due to the turmoil.
Israeli forces entered Bethlehem for 10 days in October in
pursuit of Palestinian militants, and maintain heavily armed
checkpoints at the town's edge.

A small turnout was expected Monday night for a midnight
Mass at the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, the
traditional site of Jesus' birth.

Bethlehem's Mayor Hanna Nasser said if Arafat was not
allowed to attend, he would boycott the service ``in protest
against the irresponsible and stupid Israeli measures.''

Dissenters in Sharon's divided Cabinet were also openly critical
of the decision.

``This is a silly, inflammatory and unjustified decision,'' said
Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik of the moderate Labor

Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was also among
the dissenters, announced the easing of security restrictions in
Bethlehem over the next few days ``to allow the freedom of
worship for different ethnic groups among Christians in the

Arafat has been marooned at his West Bank headquarters in
Ramallah since an Israeli air strike destroyed his helicopters on
Dec. 3. Israeli subsequently tightened the cordon around
Palestinian towns. The Israeli moves came in response to
deadly series of Palestinian attacks.

A week ago, Arafat ordered a halt to all violence against Israel,
and the number of attacks has since dropped sharply - though
they have not stopped altogether. No Israeli has been killed by
Palestinian attackers since Dec. 12, when a bus ambush killed

Arafat's speech and a subsequent crackdown by Palestinian
security forces against militants has resulted in some of the
worst Palestinian infighting in years. Seven Palestinians were
killed and about 100 injured in clashes between police and
activists Thursday and Friday.

But Israel insists that Arafat must do more.

Also Sunday, Sharon dismissed newspaper reports saying his
government supported a proposal that would recognize a
Palestinian state within two months, and negotiate the final
borders and other details over the next year.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat confidant
Ahmed Qureia worked on the plan calling for a Palestinian
state in territories the Palestinian Authority now controls,
according to the Yediot Aharonot and Maariv newspapers.

The two sides acknowledged the behind-the-scenes talks and
Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said
Peres' proposals were being considered.

The report said that after the recognition of the Palestinian
state, the sides would have a year to negotiate the toughest
issues - borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of millions
of Palestinian war refugees.

``The plan, as it is presented (in the newspapers), is imaginary
and just raising it causes great damage to Israel,'' Sharon's
office said in a statement.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said the
proposal was an attempt to ``beautify the reality of the (Israeli)

``The Palestinian people will remain under a de facto
occupation, but under an illusive cover called a `state,''' Abed
Rabbo said in a statement.

The Palestinians currently have full or partial autonomy in 42
percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They are seeking
a state in all of Gaza and the West Bank, with a capital in east

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