In Jesus' birthplace, somber Christmas observances after Israeli incursion

Posted: Friday, November 30, 2001

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- A white stone monument rises from Manger Square, dedicated to a 17-year-old Palestinian killed on the spot by Israeli weapons fire.

Mile-long Nativity Street is lined with a gutted five-story hotel, piles of rubble from shops knocked down by bulldozers and buildings with bullet-pocked facades. They're all reminders of Israel's 10-day occupation of the biblical town in October.

Times are hard in Jesus' birthplace, like everywhere in the West Bank

Few in Bethlehem, a town of 14,000 Muslims and 13,000 Christians, are in the mood for lavish celebrations. During the Christmas season, the town will remain dark, without colorful chains of lights and streamers decorating the streets.

Only Manger Square's traditional Christmas tree will bear some ornaments, and religious observances -- the Midnight Mass, choir concerts and processions of clergy -- will go ahead as every year.

Bethlehem has had glum holiday seasons before. During Israel's 1967-1995 military occupation, many tourists were scared off by stringent security measures, including metal detectors around Manger Square and snipers on rooftops. Tension ran especially high during the first Palestinian uprising that ended in 1993.

But Mayor Hanna Nasser said he can't remember a more somber season than this one.

''This Christmas won't be as any other Christmas,'' Nasser said. ''Many have paid with their lives, were injured, were hurt economically. But we can never lose our hope or spirit.''

Signs of the bitter conflict with Israel are everywhere. The iron shutters of shops lining Manger Square are plastered with posters glorifying local gunmen. One poster, in memory of an Islamic militant killed last July in a targeted Israeli missile attack, hangs next to a large plastic statue of a bleeding Jesus on the cross.

Gunmen often mill about the square, perceived as a safe place from possible Israeli retaliation; the reasoning is that Israel wouldn't risk an attack so close to the adjacent Church of the Nativity, built over what tradition says is Jesus' birth grotto.

On Oct. 19, Israeli tanks came within a quarter-mile of the church, as troops entered Bethlehem and the adjacent town of Beit Jalla to silence shooting attacks on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, built on war-won land and annexed to Jerusalem.

The raids were part of a larger military strike in response to the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister by Palestinian militants.

On the second day of the incursion, Johnny Talgieh was emerging from evening prayers in the Church of the Nativity when he was shot in the chest with what Palestinian witnesses said at the time was a stray bullet from a machine gun mounted on an Israeli tank. The teen-ager collapsed on Manger Square and died.

A 12-foot monument has since been erected on the spot. Talgieh's face and a couple of verses from the Gospel of John (11:25-26) -- about eternal life for the faithful -- are chiseled into the white stone.

The family home is just a few yards away from the basilica, and Johnny's father, Yousef, 42, pauses every morning before the monument. He said he feels his son's absence more acutely during the holiday season; Johnny served as an altar boy, and at this time of the year would be spending long hours in the church.

Even among those whose pain is less sharp, there is still a sense of loss.

In a gift shop on Nativity Street, owner Victor Hosh and his neighbor Marvel Diek, who runs a restaurant, talked about the good times when tourists thronged the town. Hosh's shop used to be crammed with red Christmas ornaments, and he would employ two ho-ho-hoing Santas to spread cheer among passers-by.

This season, there was no point in hiring helpers and Hosh displayed just a few Christmas items in a corner. Many local people are too broke because of the fighting and Israeli security closures to buy anything but necessities. Only a few tourists have come to Bethlehem, with many scared to visit and the braver souls kept away by Israeli checkpoints ringing the town.

Palestinian Tourism Minister Mitri Abu Aita said Bethlehem has lost $25 million every month. He has asked Israel's Defense Ministry to allow tourists into Bethlehem during the Christmas season, and Israeli officials told him they would consider the request, he said.

The minister urged visitors to come to Bethlehem. ''We will guarantee their safety,'' he said.

But it appears unlikely pilgrims will heed his call. Peter Elias, the manager of the Star Hotel for the past 10 years, said he has no bookings for Christmas and that he expects this to be the worst season ever.

Instead, some foreign Christians are sending donations, including packages with toys and sweets, that will be distributed to Bethlehem children for Christmas.

Nasser, the mayor, said most of the guests at the traditional Christmas Eve concert in Manger Square will be children this year, part of an effort to help the youngsters forget the current tensions.

At the Talgieh home, observances will be subdued. The family decided against having a tree and will spend the holiday in prayer.

''No one can imagine the pain our family will feel at Christmas,'' Yousef Talgieh said.

End Advance

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