A New Star Rises Over Bethlehem: Rule by Palestinians

AHMAD BALBOUL, a former Muslim Palestinian activist, used to prevent Christmas celebrations in this West Bank town and birthplace of Jesus as a protest against Israel's occupation.

But with Israeli troops withdrawing from Bethlehem Dec. 21 as the next step of the 1993 peace accords, he intends to make up for the past on Christmas Eve by lighting up the sky with fireworks and laser beams.

He will set off a Roman candle that will cascade into a 20-foot-high pyrotechnic Christmas tree. But he also will project a laser message in the night sky demanding that Israel release Palestinian prisoners.

But under the light-and-bang show a more symbolic event will be taking place.

The evergreen fir that adjoins the Christmas Tree Restaurant in the center of Bethlehem's Manger Square - seen by thousands of Christian pilgrims as the Christmas tree of Bethlehem - will be set free from an Israeli security wire fence.

For the past eight years, the tree and the restaurant have been separated by a tall security cage around the Israeli police and military base.

When Israeli troops withdraw, the tree, decorated with a star of colored lights, will be reunited with the small town and its roughly 35,000 inhabitants who have lived under Israeli occupation for 28 years.

BETHLEHEM is to become the fifth of six West Bank towns to be handed over to the Palestinians under a phased Palestinian self-rule agreement reached between Israelis and Palestinians over two years ago. The Christmas tree in Manger Square will be at the center of the celebrations.

Israelis enclosed the tree in the security cage surrounding their base in 1987 when their soldiers came under the attack of stone-hurling Palestinian youths participating in the spontaneous uprising against Israeli occupation known as the intifadah.

"I have not touched the tree for eight years," says Nicola Andonia, a Christian Palestinian who runs the restaurant founded by his family 14 years ago.

The tree's captivity in one of Christianity's most revered sites - only a stone's throw from the Church of the Nativity where Jesus of Nazareth is believed to have been born - is a potent and intrusive symbol of the conflict between Arab and Jew.

But it is not a simple story of a Palestinian tree under Israeli occupation.

The tree was planted by Israeli soldiers after Israel occupied Bethlehem and other West Bank towns during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

"The original tree died, and the soldiers planted a new tree," Mr. Andonia says.

During the intifadah, Nicola, and his uncle Anton Andonia, often sold food to the Israeli soldiers through the fence, but they were never able to touch the tree.

Their restaurant, well-known to thousands of Christian pilgrims, is situated between a mosque on its south side and the Church of the Nativity on its north side.

Diagonally opposite is the Bethlehem municipality where the town's veteran Christian mayor, Elias Freij, is a reminder of the days when Bethlehem had a Christian majority.

Mr. Freij is an enthusiastic supporter of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose Palestinian Authority (PA) will take overall control of running the town when the Israelis withdraw.

"I asked Mr. Arafat to come and share Christmas with us," Freij told the Monitor.

"He is the only Palestinian leader able to deliver, and we have a duty to support him publicly and sincerely," says Freij, who was a personal friend of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Arafat is due to attend the Christmas Eve celebrations on Sunday, and his wife, Suha, is due to turn on the lights of the Christmas tree.

It has become tradition in Bethlehem for Christians and Muslims alike to join in the Christmas festival.

But this year, there is a special effort on the part of Muslims, who make up about 65 percent of Bethlehem's residents, to make this Christmas a spectacular celebration of the town's liberation from Israeli occupation.

"There is something special about the relationship between Muslims and Christians this year," says Mary Habash, a Christian who works in the family lighting business that boasts the widest range of Christmas decorations on the West Bank - including revolving illuminated trees.

"Far more Muslims are buying decorations and trees and decorating both the inside and outside of their homes and stores," Ms. Habash says.

"The Palestinian Authority is eager to run the celebrations in a way that demonstrates its concern for the Christian community of Bethlehem and the importance it attaches to freedom of religion and worship," says Hisham Banoura, a Christian lawyer who is an instructor in the Palestinian Authority's police training center.

IN the past three decades, as many as 10,000 Christians have left to study and work abroad, while Muslims have flooded in from the villages of the West Bank seeking jobs and opportunities on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Christians make up about 35 percent of Bethlehem's population now. Before Israeli occupation began in 1967, Christians made up about 90 percent of the town's population.

Christian reasons for leaving have traditionally had more to do with the impact of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on already limited economic and educational opportunities on the West Bank than over the fear of Muslim domination.

One Christian family will be decorating a tree for the first time in several years.

Khalil Zabakli, a retired Christian businessman , lost his son Fadi in the intifadah in 1990.

For the next two years it was too painful for the Zabakli family to celebrate Christmas. In 1993, they celebrated to mark the signing of the Israel-Palestinian peace accord. And this year they will decorate a tree again. But they skipped celebrations in 1994.

"My son's struggle has become real now. What he was struggling for has started to happen," says Mr. Zabakli in a small reception room dominated by his late son's portrait and plaques honoring his name.

"I will always feel the sadness of the loss of my son, but I support the peace process, and I hope that real peace will come one day," Zabakli adds.

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