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Palestinians Host Christmas Gala in Bethlehem, As Settlers Protest

Thousands of Palestinians and pilgrims celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem – the first ever coordinated by the Palestinian Authority – as Jewish demonstrators protested Israel’s withdrawal from the town.

Israeli troops pulled out of the city on Dec. 21, and Israeli officials handed power over to the Palestinians in a brief ceremony.

In his traditional address to worshipers at Christmas eve mass, Latin patriarch Michel Sabbah issued a call for reconciliation, saying that “the beginning of Palestinian freedom is the beginning of reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians.”

Alluding to Palestinian Christian concerns that the majority Muslim population in this city of 55,000 would dominate under self-rule, Sabbah urged Arab Muslims and Christians “to be brothers in the Holy Land.”

Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, who was guest of honor at the mass, earlier assured church officials that their rights would be preserved under autonomous rule.

Outside the church, thousands of Palestinians gathered in a joyous street festival, a sharp contrast to the subdued celebrations that prevailed during the years of the Palestinian uprising and the Israeli occupation in general.

With Christmas decorations intermingled with Palestinian flags and pictures of Arafat, the event was as much a political Palestinian flags and pictures of Arafat, the event was as much a political Palestinian celebration as a religious holiday.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 Jewish demonstrators gathered on the outskirts of the city to protest the Israeli government’s peace talks with the Palestinians. Leaders of the Yesha Council, representing settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, said the demonstration was the first by Israeli settlers in a month.

Rally organizers had originally hoped to hold the gathering outside Rachel’s Tomb, but were prevented from doing so by Israeli security forces.