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Officials hope for quiet Bethlehem Christmas

JERUSALEM – Israel is taking special steps to ensure a merry Christmas in Bethlehem, an Israeli military official said Thursday, raising hopes for a gentler holiday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus after four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

International attention focuses on the West Bank town on Christmas Eve, so Israeli officials see an improved Christmas atmosphere there as a boon to Israel’s troubled image.

“The importance of Bethlehem to the Christian world is clear to us,” said Lt. Col. Aviv Feigel, head of the army’s Bethlehem district liaison office. “We in the army are preparing ourselves for this momentous occasion.”

The main difference from previous years is the perception of lessened tensions since the Nov. 11 death of Yasser Arafat. Israel accused him of involvement in Palestinian violence and is hoping for a more pragmatic, nonviolent leadership to replace him.

Briefing reporters on preparations for Bethlehem, Feigel said Israel would transfer security control there to Palestinian forces between Christmas Eve and the Armenian Christmas on Jan. 19. He said Israeli soldiers manning Bethlehem area checkpoints also would be given detailed instructions on how to deal with Christian visitors.

Shortly after the latest Palestinian uprising began four years ago, Israel took control of main West Bank towns and roads, setting up dozens of roadblocks. Bethlehem is surrounded by posts controlling entry and exit, and the barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank cuts through the town.

Within that framework, the military said it would allow Israeli and Gaza Christians to visit Bethlehem and would not restrict the number of West Bank Palestinians arriving there.

“Every soldier at the checkpoints will receive a detailed sheet of information about the importance of Bethlehem to Christians, so they will know how to behave,” Feigel said.

However, Feigel himself seemed a bit confused by the religious intricacies of the holiday. In distinguishing Dec. 25 from the separate Greek Orthodox and Armenian celebrations, he referred to it as the “Catholic Christmas,” apparently unaware that hundreds of millions of Protestants celebrate it on the same day.

A town of 40,000 people 4 miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem was once a magnet for foreign visitors during the Christmas season, with tens of thousands crowding Manger Square during the annual midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.