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Thursday November 30, 2000

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Bethlehem cancels plans for Christmas 2000 celebrations

By The Associated Press

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Bethlehem's city fathers have called off ambitious plans for Christmas 2000, saying a time of Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no time for merrymaking.

The town of Jesus' birth will be dark and deserted this Christmas - without festive street lights, craft fairs and choirs in Manger Square.

In the past two months, seven Palestinians from the Bethlehem area have been killed in rock-throwing clashes and gun battles with Israeli soldiers.

For most of that time, Israeli travel restrictions have kept tourists and other non-Palestinians out of biblical Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns. These were tightened 10 days ago, to bar all traffic into and out of Palestinian towns.

"In view of the very bad situation we are living in, it doesn't make sense that we celebrate while there are still closures, and so many people have been killed," said Tony Marcos, a spokesman for the municipality.

"Celebrations for Christmas have been canceled," he said.

Festive street lights still hanging from last year's celebrations, when thousands of visitors crowded Manger Square, will remain unlit. Musical concerts have been called off and the Christmas craft fair will not go ahead as planned.

There is even debate over whether the giant Christmas tree, usually brought in from Norway as the centerpiece of Manger Square, will be decorated or left bare. One suggestion has been to hang pictures of more than 200 Palestinians killed in fighting on the branches of the Christmas tree.

The travel restrictions have battered Bethlehem's economy, which depends heavily on tourists.

"Manger Square by this time should have been filled with tourists, guides and visitors. Now it is empty," Marcos said.

Yesterday only one shop lining Manger Square was open. The other shopkeepers were observing a strike call by the Palestinian leadership - yesterday marked the anniversary of the 1947 U.N. partition vote that led to Israel's creation.

Joseph Jakaman stood in the doorway of his souvenir shop, which sells religious icons made from olive wood and mother of pearl.

"It's very bad, the people here are unhappy. The shops open for a few hours every day, some don't even open anymore," he said, leaning against the counter, a mother of pearl statue twinkling in the light behind him.

Jakaman said he and his fellow Bethlehem merchants had initially anticipated record sales this Christmas season, with large numbers of tourists and pilgrims expected for the 2000th birthday of Christianity.

"People were preparing for Christmas from the beginning of this year. We thought we would see the most tourists ever," Jakaman said, adding that it had been over a month and a half since a tourist had bought something from his shop.

While the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising saw just a few hundred pilgrims brave heavy security and safety concerns to celebrate Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, thousands have crowded Manger Square for Christmas festivities in the years since - until now.

Yesterday, the empty hallways of the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born, echoed with the chanting of Orthodox priests. The grotto itself was occupied by a lone priest, his head bowed, hands fingering rosary beads.

During normal times, visiting tourists would jostle with each other for a glimpse of the sacred site. Yesterday, only processions of nuns and monks filtered into the room for prayers.

Dorothus, an Orthodox priest at the church, said the religious ceremonies will continue as planned. "The situation is not good, but we are praying for peace. In every liturgy we pray for peace," he said.

Hotels have been empty since the beginning of October, said George Halal, an employee at the Paradise Hotel. "Normally the hotel is full (in December), but we've had cancellations from everyone, coming from places like Greece, Italy, France and Germany," he said.

Some tour operators are canceling plans for tours as far ahead as Easter, said Jumana Abbas, a spokeswoman for Bethlehem 2000, a special body set up by the Palestinian Authority as part of its millennium celebrations.

"We are living day by day, so we are keeping announcements (of events) to the last minute until we are sure they are going to happen," she said.

For December and January, Bethlehem 2000 had planned 13 evening concerts in Manger Square to mark the pre-Christmas season and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan which began this week. The concerts have been called off.

"Muslims and Christians live together here side by side," Abbas said. "If Christmas celebrations are to be canceled, any Ramadan activities will be canceled as well. It is because the Palestinian people are not in the mood to celebrate."