23 December 2001
By Matthew Kalman USA TODAY
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Sunday that he would defy an Israeli ban and travel here for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Israeli officials have demanded that Arafat arrest the assassins of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi before they allow him to leave Ramallah. He has been confined to that West Bank city since early this month, when Israel destroyed his helicopters and demanded he fight Palestinian terrorism.
"No one can prevent me from reaching Bethlehem," Arafat said in Ramallah. Although he is Muslim, Arafat has gone to Bethlehem for Christmas celebrations each year since 1995, when the town was turned over to Palestinian authorities. "It is my duty, and I will see to it that I fulfill it," he said. "I will go there even if I have to go on foot."
The mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nasser, said he would boycott midnight Mass tonight at the Church of the Nativity — believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus — if Arafat can't attend.
Last Christmas, the Israeli secret service escorted Arafat's convoy by road back from Bethlehem to Ramallah because his helicopter was grounded by driving rain. This year, Israeli tanks and ground forces are blockading Ramallah to prevent Arafat from leaving the city.
Israel has lifted restrictions on Palestinian Christians traveling in and out of the West Bank, so they can attend Christmas services in Jerusalem or Bethlehem.
Israel said Arafat had been given information on the assassins who killed Zeevi on Oct. 17 but was doing nothing to apprehend them, to disband terrorist organizations or to stop attacks on Israel.
Arafat has been under pressure from the United States and the European Union to crack down on militants. This month, he ordered radical groups to end suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Over the weekend, both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations agreed to suspend such attacks in Israel.
Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdul Rahman said he had asked Pope John Paul II "to intervene to stop this attack on religious traditions and against the Palestinian people."
Also Sunday, a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed as "imaginary and without any foundation" newspaper reports of a secret peace agreement between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and a Palestinian official. The reports said Peres and Abu Ala, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, had agreed on the establishment of a Palestinian state "within eight months" in Gaza and the 42% of the West Bank currently under full or partial Palestinian control.
The latest wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence is in its 15th month.