Bethlehem showed little signs of cheer on Christmas Eve, the devastating effects of a three-month cycle of bloodshed and a punishing Israeli blockade nowhere more in evidence than in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
The town, the showcase for Palestinian millennium celebrations this time last year, has cancelled most celebrations on the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus's birth, with tourist numbers a fraction of those in Christmas 1999.
But the traditional Christmas Eve midnight mass will go on, with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat among those attending.
It will be Arafat's first trip to the West Bank since the start of the Palestinian revolt against the Israeli occupation that has so far claimed the lives of more than 350 people, most of them Palestinians.
The Israeli army announced Sunday that visitors would be able to go to Bethlehem for Christmas "according to the security situation," but gave no other details.
Israel has imposed a blockade on Bethlehem and other Palestinian towns since the uprising was unleashed in late September, crippling the economy and preventing tourists and pilgrims visiting the town.
Christmas festivities in Bethlehem, which has been the scene of fierce Israeli-Palestinian clashes over the past 12 weeks, are being limited to strictly religious celebrations to show solidarity with the "martyrs" of the Intifada, the Palestinian minister for Bethlehem Nabil Qassis said last week.
More than 350 people have been killed in the unrest, most of them Palestinians.
Many shops and restaurants were shut and there were few Christmas decorations in the town that has been undergoing a massive facelift under a UN sponsored project that got underway in 1998.
"This is a sad Christmas for me and everybody. I have never seen it like this for 25 years," lamented souvenir shopkeeper Yusef. "I have not sold anything for two months."
The annual Christmas procession by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, due to get underway Sunday afternoon, will be conducted without music.
But it is expected that the Saint Catherine Church, near the Church of the Nativity built over the site where Christian tradition say Jesus was born, will still fill to its 3,000 capacity for the midnight mass, to be led by Sabbah.
Tourism, the lifeblood of the Palestinian ruled town that lies just a few kilometers (miles) south of Jerusalem, has been killed by the unrest, as thousands of people have cancelled trips to the region.
Qassis said that almost the whole program for the Bethlehem 2000 celebrations had been cancelled. In November, only 3,000 tourists visited the town, a figure he said was less than "one day in a bad year." -- BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )