Arafat May Not Celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem This Year

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat will not be allowed to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem this year if he doesn't first arrest the assassins of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi and the Palestinian who ordered Ze'evi's murder, according to radio reports.

Ze'evi was killed in a Jerusalem hotel in October and his killers fled to the PA controlled areas. The Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility for the killing.

Several government ministers, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, were quoted by radio reports as saying that Israel should allow Arafat to participate in services in Bethlehem since it is a religious and not a national event.

Neither the Israeli Prime Minister's office nor the Defense Ministry would confirm the reports, and both said that Arafat had not yet requested permission to travel to Bethlehem.

They refused to speculate on whether or not the government would honor such a request and grant permission if it were asked.

Although Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is under full PA control, it would be necessary for Arafat to either travel through Israeli territory or airspace to arrive there.

Arafat, a Muslim, has attended midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity with his wife, a former Christian, every Christmas Eve since Bethlehem was turned over to full PA control in December of 1995.

Last year, three months into the intifadah, Israel permitted Arafat to drive through Jerusalem from south to north, past the Old City and on to the Jordanian border north of Jericho on his way home. It was so windy that he could not fly safely to Jordan in his helicopter.

There has been speculation about whether or not Arafat would be able to attend this year's mass since Israel destroyed his helicopters in an air raid several weeks ago.

The Israeli action was taken in response to a shooting ambush on a bus and civilian cars that left 10 Israelis dead.