Thousands Greet PLO Chairman’s Arrival in Bethlehem
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) _ From a church roof overlooking Manger Square, PLO leader Yasser Arafat on Saturday declared the newly autonomous Bethlehem ``liberated″ and promised to continue toward Jerusalem.
Thousands of cheering supporters greeted Arafat as he arrived to preside over Bethlehem’s first Christmas under Palestinian control.
``I tell the whole world ... that the city of Bethlehem that is liberated is the city of peace,″ Arafat said from the roof of the Church of Nativity, which is built on the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.
Church bells pealed and the crowd roared as Arafat waved and held up his fingers to form a ``V″ for victory.
Israel’s troops withdrew from Bethlehem on Thursday, ending almost 28 years of Israeli rule. Bethlehem was the sixth West Bank town _ in addition to the Gaza Strip _ to come under Palestinian control as part of the Israel-PLO autonomy accords.
The Israeli troops were replaced with 850 Palestinian policemen. Another 180 arrived Saturday to help control the crowd upon Arafat’s arrival.
Just five miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is the closest Arafat has come since the start of the Israel-PLO peace process to the Israeli capital. Both sides want control over east Jerusalem which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel claims the entire city as its capital.
Arafat called Saturday for the establishment of a Palestinian state and said that holy sites in Jerusalem would soon be under Palestinian control, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where tradition says Jesus died.
``I call upon you to help build the Palestinian state so we can fly the Palestinian flag everywhere,″ Arafat said. ``Today we embrace in the Church of Nativity and tomorrow we shall embrace in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.″
Arafat was to speak from the rooftop of the Church of Nativity again on Sunday, Christmas Eve.
Arafat’s wife Soha and 5-month-old daughter Zahwa launched Christmas celebrations Friday by switching on the lights of a Christmas tree in Manger Square.
The square was adorned by pictures of Arafat and Palestinian flags, including one 30 feet long. A large banner said ``Congratulations to our people for the departure of the occupation. May it never return.″ It was signed by the PLO’s mainstream Fatah Party.
In this city of 15,000 Christians and 35,000 Muslims’ the Christmas celebrations are being viewed by many as nationalistic, rather than religious.
Christians in the city said they were not concerned that the mostly Muslim Palestinian Authority was now in control and that Arafat was to preside over the festivities.
``This is the Church of God,″ said Samira Jaber, 48, a Roman Catholic resident of Bethlehem, referring to the Church of Nativity. ``Everyone from every religion goes inside.″