Mon, Nov 20, 2000 - Page 1 News List

Christmas called off in Bethlehem

THE GRINCH OF WAR Bethlehem was to hold a grand finale of 12 months of millennium celebrations. But the event has been cancelled due to violence surrounding the intifada

THE OBSERVER AND REUTERS , BETHLEHEM

Two thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ, Bethlehem has cancelled Christmas.

The grand finale of 12 months of millennium celebrations, a Christmas spectacular in Manger Square featuring choirs from around the world, has been called off because of the violence surrounding the intifada.

Confirmation that the Bethlehem 2000 Project, which co-ordinated this year's globally televised millennium celebrations in a packed town, will not be happening as planned follows cancellations by choirs and other groups which had agreed to perform.

It also follows the complete collapse of tourist bookings to a city which had been enjoying massive urban regeneration on the back of its program of millennium events.

In the last seven weeks, however, the ancient town and the neighboring suburb of Beit Jala have been at the center of some of the worst violence of the intifada.

Beit Jala, where a German doctor, Harry Fischer, was killed last week by Israeli helicopter fire as he tried to give medical attention to wounded neighbors, has been the scene of almost nightly gun battles and shelling.

Bethlehem, too, has been the scene of fierce fighting and fatalities, centered on the flashpoint at Rachel's Tomb, a few hundred meters from Bethlehem's most impressive new luxury hotel.

Jack Persekian, events co-ordinator for the Bethlehem 2000 Project, said last week: "We were going to wait and see what the situation was like next month. But the truth is that most of the groups who had agreed to come and perform have already cancelled. We had been hoping that the centerpiece would be a performance by children's choirs from around the world performing in Manger Square. Now we have had to put everything on hold. We have to wait now and see how serious the hostilities are before we can know whether we can have any kind of event at all.

"If the situation allows it, we will try to have a small religious event even if it is without the tourists. It is a great shame. We had put so much effort into trying to persuade people that Bethlehem was a nice place for tourists to come to and now all that is in ruins.

"Hotels had been reporting booking rates for the next few months in the realm of 90-plus percent. Now that has all fallen through."

Disclosure of the cancellation of Bethlehem's Christmas spectacular came as violence continued yesterday in the Palestinian territories.

In the most serious incident, a Palestinian policeman killed an Israeli soldier and wounded two others before being shot dead himself in Gaza.

An Israeli army statement said Baruch Plum, a 21-year-old staff sergeant from Tel Aviv, had been killed in the early morning attack on an army post near the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom. In a separate incident, a Palestinian security official said three missiles had struck a Palestinian police post in Khan Younis.

Palestinian Minister of State for Bethlehem 2000 affairs, Nabil Qassis, said: "It's awful. Some choirs have been canceled and some postponed. This is not the time to put up decorations."

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