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Mrs. Arafat Ushers in Christmas at Palestinian Bethlehem

December 22, 1995

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) _ As thousands danced and cheered, Yasser Arafat’s wife lit the Christmas tree in Manger Square on Friday, ushering in Bethlehem’s first Christmas under Palestinian rule.

``We are very proud to finally be in liberated Bethlehem, the home of Christ,″ said Soha Arafat, a Christian, flipping the switch that set a 30-foot pine aglow with red, green and yellow lights.

She held up for the crowd her five-month-old daughter Zahwa, decked out in a pink-and-white snowsuit topped with a fluffy white pompom.

Arriving in Bethlehem the day after Israeli troops pulled out of the city, Mrs. Arafat was welcomed by a crowd of celebrators, who danced, sang and milled cheerfully in the square, where the Palestinian flag and pictures of Arafat hung alongside Christmas decorations.

Thousands pressed into the small plaza outside the Church of the Nativity _ built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born under a shining star _ to watch Mrs. Arafat and her young child launch the holiday celebrations.

A Palestinian policeman sitting on the shoulders of a dancing man raised his Kalashnikov assault rifle in joy. One woman, clapping and cheering, grabbed the red beret of a police officer and placed it over her white head scarf.

Arafat himself plans to address the crowds Christmas Eve from the roof of the church.

``We are very happy today,″ said Victoria Freij, wife of the city’s Palestinian mayor of 23 years. ``We have freedom, happiness. You see how very happy the people are.″

The Israeli pullout Thursday ended almost 28 years of Israeli rule in the West Bank town, just five miles south of Jerusalem, which Israel occupied following the 1967 Israel-Arab war. The troops were replaced with 850 Palestinian policemen.

``It is the moment we have waited for since 1967,″ said Joma Yussuf, 25, a computer student at Bethlehem University. ``Two days ago, the occupation was here, but under our own forces we have freedom.″

Earlier, French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette saluted the crowd from a balcony overlooking the square, his palms pressed together in a salute of peace.

``I share the Palestinians’ happiness,″ said de Charette, the first foreign leader to visit Bethlehem under PLO rule.

De Charette plans to call on PLO headquarters in Jerusalem over the weekend. In the past, Israelis have opposed that kind of visit as lending legitimacy to Palestinian claims to the city, but Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres seemed resigned Friday.

``The question is whether it is worthwhile making an issue out of it for our dignity. What for?″ Peres asked.

For his part, normally conciliatory Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij suggested that Israeli officials were not welcome to attend the celebrations in his town.

``For 28 years, Israelis were represented here by their military governors. Maybe in three years we’ll invite them,″ said Freij, whose town has 35,000 Muslims and 15,000 Christians.

Freij, a Greek Orthodox Christian, said no heads of state _ except Arafat _ were invited to the Christmas festivities, including Peres.

He said Israeli tourists were welcome, provided they were not armed. However, Israel’s army barred Israeli citizens from entering Bethlehem through Sunday, saying it wanted to avoid possible friction in the first days after the handover.

The army said the restrictions did not apply to foreigners.

``This is a historical night,″ said an exultant Freij, who is also Arafat’s tourism minister. ``At long last, the Israeli occupation has left this town. It’s time for us to prove that we are capable of running our affairs by ourselves.″

Jewish settlers, meanwhile, gathered in protest Friday outside Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, where the biblical matriarch is believed to have been buried.

Headed by the extremist Jewish Rabbi Dov Lior from the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba outside Hebron, about a dozen settlers tore their clothing in a gesture of mourning over the loss of land they believe is their biblical birthright.

Under the Israel-PLO accord, Israel has retained control over Rachel’s tomb and other sites holy to Jews in the West Bank.

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