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Arafat Stays Home, Forgoes Christmas in Bethlehem

A solemn atmosphere hung over Bethlehem as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat under Israeli pressure, decided against attending midnight mass in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

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Arafat holds hands with Latin father Atallah Hanna, left, spokesman of the West Bank Latin churches and the muslim sheik Tayser Tamemi

Saying his "heart is heavy with sorrow", Palestinian President Yassar Arafat, said in a televised speech that Israel had committed a crime by preventing a "believer in God and peace" from travelling to Bethlehem to celebrate midnight mass.

Noting he had not missed Christmas eve mass in Bethlehem for the past six years, the 72-year-old Arafat said: "The location where Jesus was born is under siege from all sides". Mr. Arafat attended a midnight mass in Ramallah instead.

In a symbolic gesture of solidarity to Mr. Arafat, the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the Catholic Church's senior representative to the Holy Land, had a chequered Arab headdress draped over an empty seat, with a sign in English reading: H.E. Yasser Arafat, President of the State of Palestine.

The Mass in Bethlehem is an annual event, which has come to symbolise Arafat's role as the leader of both Palestinian Muslims and Christians.

Sharon relentless despite flak

Despite growing domestic and international pressure, Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon remained firm in his decision to deny Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat permission to cross through West Bank territory under its occupation to Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem.

He reiterated that Arafat must first immediately arrest the killers of an Israeli cabinet minister. Sharon’s stubbornness drew much criticism both at home and abroad.

The United Nations, European Union and the United States all attempted to persuade Israel to change its mind. And the Vatican condemned what it called an "arbitrarily imposed" ban.

Fallout of the ban?

But it wasn’t long before the effects of Israel’s ban on Arafat became visible. On Monday a group from Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction wounded an Israeli settler in a shooting in the West Bank. It said the attack was retaliation for Israel's ban on Arafat attending Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem.

Palestinian militant groups have been responsible for a spate of shootings and bomb attacks against Israeli targets since an uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip flared in September 2000.

And now hostilities with Jordan?

Meanwhile Israel came under fire from unexpected quarters - suspected infiltrators from neighbouring Jordan. Arab gunmen killed one Israeli soldier and wounded at least three troops after infiltrating from Jordan in a rare cross-border raid on Tuesday, Israeli security sources said.

The sources said Israeli helicopters and ground forces pursued the gunmen into Jordan. The army would not confirm that troops had crossed the border.

The fighting erupted at the usually quiet border on the Jordan Valley about 16 km north of the West Bank.

It’s still unclear who carried out the attacks. Hostilities at the border have been rare since Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994.

But Jordan denied on Tuesday a report from Israel that Israeli troops had entered Jordan in pursuit of suspected Arab gunmen who killed one Israeli soldier and wounded at least three troops.

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