Pilgrims Tour a Subdued Bethlehem as Two Die in Violence
BETHLEHEM, Occupied West Bank (AP) _ Palestinian youths threw rocks at soldiers as hundreds of heavily guarded pilgrims toured the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ in a driving rain on Christmas Day.
Elsehwere in the Israeli-occupied territories, two Palestinians died of gunshot wounds and eighteen others were injured in clashes with soldiers, Arab reports said.
Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem were markedly subdued because of drenching rain that began Saturday and the year-old Palestinian uprising. Sunday’s fatalities raised the number of Arabs killed in the revolt to 336. Fourteen Israelis also have died.
In Bethlehem’s Manger Square, where the Bible says Jesus was born, the Christmas tree was decorated with only a few colored lights. Police and soldiers inspected cars for security.
Just a handful of shopkeepers opened souvenir stores, while the rest responded to Palestinian calls for a general strike.
As pilgrims chanted mass in the Church of the Nativity off the square, about 50 soldiers chased a group of stone-throwing youths outside. The protesters shouted ″with blood and soul we will redeem the martyrs,″ Arab news reports said.
An army spokeswoman confirmed the stone-throwing and said protesters were dispersed without shooting and no one was injured.
Despite the violence, not noticed inside the church, tourists said they were glad they came.
″We are excited to be here, to see the places we have read about from childhood through Sunday school and Bible studies,″ said Charles W. Fleming, director of the Shiloh Baptist Church Senior Choir in Washington.
About 76 members of the choir came to Bethlehem to give a Christmas Eve concert.
″It’s very meaningful, far more meaningful than in the past because my mind is focused on Christ and not on the commercial aspect of Christmas,″ said church organist Everett Williams Jr.
In the occupied Gaza Strip, Christmas was marred by clashes.
The worst was in Jabaliya, a shantytown refugee camp that is home to 52,000 Palestinians at the northern tip of seaside Gaza.
Arab news reports said troops shot 17-year old Raed Rashid Idmaida in the head, killing him. Five other Palestinian teen-agers were wounded, the reports said.
The army said the confrontation occurred when a routine patrol came under a hail of stones.
″After one soldier was attacked physically by several protesters and there was danger to his life, the soldier was forced to fire at one of them and he (the protester) was killed,″ said an army spokesman.
Sunday’s second fatality was Mohammed Naser Hwash, 22, who died of a head wound sustained Dec. 16 during a clash in the West Bank city of Nablus, according to an official at Muqassed Hospital in Arab East Jerusalem. The army said it was checking the report.
Arab news reports said six more Palestinians were wounded in Gaza and five Arab teen-agers were injured in the West Bank as the violence spread. Two other Arabs were treated at the hospital after they were hit by rubber bullets, the reports said.
The army confirmed two wounded.
Moslem fundamentalists of the Hamas or Zeal movement published a leaflet calling for a day of ″confrontation″ with Israel on Sunday to mark the 41st anniversary of the founding of an armed Palestinian resistance movement.
Another leaflet distributed Sunday by leaders of the uprising voiced sympathy for families of victims of Wednesday’s Pan Am jet crash that killed all 258 people aboard.
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Arens has linked the crash to Palestinians.
Also Sunday, left-wing legislator Dedi Zucker charged dozens of Palestinians have died of serious illnesses this year because the army refused to pay for special treatment at Israeli hospitals.
Many Arabs from Israeli-occupied territory and neighboring countries are treated at Israeli hospitals.
But Zucker said the army recently cut its budget because Palestinians have refused to pay taxes as part of the uprising.
As a result, the number of West Bank Palestinians hospitalized in Israel this year for illnesses ranging from cancer to heart disease declined by about 80 percent, Zucker said in an interview.
Olivier Rapovitch, a spokesman for the West Bank military government, refused to comment.