Israel Rejects EU Request To Quit Bethlehem Before Christmas

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel rejected a request from European Union ambassadors here on Tuesday for Israeli troops to leave Bethlehem before Christmas but said Christmas celebrations would be facilitated.

Israeli Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with the ambassadors before leaving on a European tour on Tuesday, his first since becoming foreign minister. The visit will include stops in Rome, Paris, London and Moscow.

Netanyahu said in response to the request that Israel would permit Christian worshippers, including those from other West Bank towns and Israeli Arabs, to visit Bethlehem for the Christmas festivities. However, Israel would continue to do everything to ensure the safety of its citizens.

Israeli troops took up positions in and around Bethlehem in November after a suicide bomber from the Bethlehem area exploded himself on a Jerusalem bus, killing 11.

Israel Radio quoted a senior Israeli army commander Tuesday as saying that the goal of the army regarding Bethlehem during the holiday would be "maximum security and minimum visibility."

Israel will pull out of high-profile areas, while maintaining its presence around the refugee camps, due to warnings of plans to carry out attacks from the camps.

Despite the request for a troop withdrawal from Bethlehem, the EU ambassadors did not request that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat be allowed to attend mass there.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his cabinet on Sunday that Arafat was to be barred from traveling to Bethlehem for Christmas.

Arafat, a Muslim, has attended Christmas Eve mass every year since Israel handed control of the city over to the PA in 1995.

Netanyahu told the diplomats that, to the best of his knowledge Arafat was not a practicing Christian. He charged that his demand to take part in the mass as an expression of peace, friendship and brotherhood was cynical, especially in light of the continuing terrorism for which Arafat is responsible.

One government source, who asked not to be named, went even further in accusing the PA of intimidating the local Christian community there.

"The Palestinian Authority is responsible for intimidation and harassment of the Christian population in Bethlehem," he said. "Bethlehem has become a city of corruption, harassment and intimidation under the PA."

Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, was 90 percent Christian 50 years ago. But that number has dwindled considerably over the last half-century and now Christians comprise less than 50 percent of the population. Two years of intifadah violence have added to the Christian exodus from the city.

House Demolition Halted

In Bethlehem on Tuesday, Israeli troops halted the demolition of a group of houses when it became clear that the owners were not connected with terrorist activities.

The army declined to comment on the incident, but reports said that a decision was made to demolish the houses owned by the Issa family after two Tanzim militants on Israel's wanted list were arrested there on Tuesday morning. The two are suspected of planning to send out suicide bombers.

During the summer, Israel implemented a policy of demolishing the homes of suicide bombers hoping that it would act as a deterrent measure, if the bombers believed that their families would be made homeless by their deeds.

Israel has claimed some successes from the policy, saying that some parents have turned in their sons before they could carry out attacks.

The Issa family reportedly runs a school promoting Jewish-Arab cooperation, which has been patronized by high-profile Americans including Hillary Clinton and has been visited by Americans such as U.S. envoy William Burns. A congressional delegation reportedly visited there on Monday.

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