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Israel Girds for Possible Outcry After Barring Arafat from Bethlehem

Israeli officials are preparing a P.R. campaign to defend their decision to keep soldiers in Bethlehem over Christmas.

The campaign will also deal with their decision to bar Yasser Arafat, for the second year running, from attending midnight Mass in the West Bank city.

The issue surfaced as Israel scored a major diplomatic victory at the U.N. Security Council, which voted to condemn the Nov. 28 terror attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya.

Last week, President Moshe Katsav came under pressure from the pope and other Vatican officials, who pressed him to have Israeli soldiers out of Bethlehem by Christmas. During his meeting with the pope, Katsav said Israel would make every effort to do so.

But on Sunday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, told Cabinet members that because of continued terror warnings the army does not plan to withdraw from the city.

At the same meeting, Cabinet ministers decided that Arafat will not be allowed to attend Christmas Mass in Bethlehem.

Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem in August as part of an initiative to gradually transfer security control in portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip back to the Palestinian Authority.

But the army returned following a November terrorist bombing in Jerusalem that was carried out by a Palestinian from Bethlehem.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the Cabinet’s decision.

Arafat aide Nabil Abu Irdeineh called it “a provocation” and a violation of promises made to the Vatican and the United States.

Last year, Israel came under a barrage of international criticism for barring Arafat from making the trip to Bethlehem, after Arafat refused to hand over the assassins of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

Before that, Arafat, a Muslim, had attended every Christmas Mass in Bethlehem since 1995, a year after the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

It is not clear whether Israel’s latest travel ban on Arafat would prompt a renewed international outcry.

The director of the Prime Minister’s Office, Dov Weisglass, was slated to meet Monday with Foreign Ministry officials to discuss how Israel will mount its P.R. campaign.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials were applauding after the U.N. Security Council condemned last month’s terror attacks in Kenya.

“The Security Council has never before adopted a resolution that so clearly condemns the terrorist killing of Israelis or Jews,” Israel’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Aaron Jacob, told The New York Times.

The executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, called the resolution “a diplomatic and psychological breakthrough.” He was quoted as telling the Times, “After 54 years of Israel’s existence, the U.N. Security Council, with American leadership, has finally acknowledged that the loss of Jewish lives in terrorist attacks warrants condemnation.”

The resolution passed last Friday by a 14-1 vote. Syria cast the sole dissenting vote.

Three Israelis and 10 Kenyans were killed in the Nov. 28 suicide bombing at the Paradise Hotel north of Mombasa.

Minutes earlier, two shoulder-launched missiles narrowly missed an Israeli charter plane taking off from Mombasa airport for Tel Aviv.

Last month, a spokesman for Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the Kenya attacks and vowed more terror to retaliate for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

But over the weekend, Arafat sought to distance the Palestinian Authority from Al-Qaida.

In an interview with the London Sunday Times, Arafat said Osama bin Laden is exploiting Palestinian suffering to garner support in the Arab world.

“Why is bin Laden talking about Palestine now? Bin Laden never, not ever, stressed this issue, he never helped us, he was working in another completely different area and against our interests,” Arafat was quoted as saying.

Israeli officials, including Sharon, have recently charged that Al-Qaida operatives have set up bases in Palestinian- controlled areas, a claim denied by the Palestinian Authority.

In a related development over the weekend, Jordanian authorities arrested two alleged members of Al-Qaida in connection with the recent assassination of a U.S. diplomat.

The two allegedly killed Laurence Foley, who was gunned down in front of his house in Amman on Oct. 28.

The Jordanian government said in a statement Saturday that the two suspects, a Jordanian and a Libyan, were arrested after a nationwide hunt.

A day later, the government backed off earlier denials and acknowledged that Al-Qaida has set up small cells in the kingdom.

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