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Culture

Last Exit Bethlehem

Israel has banned Arafat from attending annual Christmas festivities in Bethlehem this year. Despite the ban, Arafat has said he would rather go on foot than not take part at all.

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Defiant - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

Yasser Arafat will attempt to make his annual visit to Bethlehem today in defiance of an Israeli ban.

Israel’s security cabinet voted on Sunday to ban the Palestinian leader from attempting midnight mass in Jesus‘ birthplace until Palestinian attacks on Israelis had stopped.

But Arafat said he would defy all obligations and attend the festivities, even if he had to walk.

However, the frail 72-year-old is unlikely to manage the trip on foot. And he would have to pass several roads in the West Bank sealed off in places by Israeli troops and tanks.

The midnight mass in Bethlehem is held at Saint Catherine Church, next to the Basilica of the Nativity. Ramallah, Arafat’s base, and Bethlehem are less than 22 km apart as the crow flies, but Israeli tanks and troops control the principal routes between them.

Israel is resisting international pressure to reverse its decision. On Monday, the Israeli government set a condition for lifting the ban, allowing Arafat to attend the town’s Christmas festivities if he arrested those involved in the killing of an Israeli cabinet minister in October by Monday evening.

But Palestinan cabinet mister Yasser Abed Rabbo denied any such condition had been relayed to Palestinan officials as part of international mediation efforts to change Israel’s decision, stating it was just to please the media.

Christian support

Although a Muslim, Arafat enjoys ecumenical support among Palestinians. His wife – like around 400,000 Palestinians worldwide, is Christian.

According to a senior Israeli official, Arafat is not Christian – therefore Israel was not restricting his religious rights. The Israeli government said Arafat was not acting to dismantle Palestinian terror groups or to stop attacks against Israel.

Israel is said to believe Arafat knows where the killers of cabinet misister Rehavam Zeevi are hiding but refuses to arrest them.

Opposition to the ban

The ban came despite Arafat‘s calls for Palestinan attacks to stop on Israel. However, tensions have increased between militant groups and police from the Palestinan Authority. Six people were killed in inter-Palestinian clashes last week.

Israel’s decision has sparked indignation across the world. The United Nations, European Union and the United States are all involved in an attempt to make Israel change its mind.

And several Israeli ministers have voiced strong opposition to the travel ban, saying it will damage Israel's image abroad. Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, told Israel army radio that Mr Arafat should be allowed to go to Bethlehem, saying he didn’t want the ban on Arafat to become the talk of Christmas in the Christian world.