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A CHRISTMAS CAROL: Bethlehem, 1995

When in Israel at Christmas, the place to go must be Bethlehem, especially in the year when the Israelis are going and the Palestine Authority arriving. So I went, three times.

On Christmas Eve morning, I boarded a dusty Arab bus from outside the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem and paid my thirty pence for the eight mile ride to Manger Street. Bethlehem is not a pretty town, even on a bright sunny day. It is pretty squalid, a mass of litter, untidy precast buildings, and in the absence of traffic lights honking traffic chaos, controlled or contributed to by the newly deployed Palestinian police and defence forces. A visiting French journalist from one of Bethlehem's twin towns told me that the Israelis had made no effort to develop the town's tourist potential during their 28 year occupation, preferring that tourists like me should stay and pay in Jerusalem.

Manger Square is crammed with people at eleven in the morning, and Palestine flags and pictures of Arafat outnumber pictures of Mary and the Infant Jesus. But they are there, as is a giant Christmas Tree outside the old Israeli and new Palestine Police Station, the roof of which is full of armed men. In the past few days, the barbed wire fence surrounding it has been torn down.

We appear to be waiting for the Latin Patriarch, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Jerusalem whose entry into Bethlehem is preceded by an endlessly long procession of bands, scouts and guides. I spot the Greek Orthodox Patriarch disappearing up a side street in a shiny stretched limo. He is the custodian of the Church of the Nativity, and others worship there as his guests. Orthodox Christmas happens in early January, and Armenian Apostolic even later. Today's celebrations are the first of the trio.

Clinging to municipal street furniture with half a dozen Arab young men, I'm wilting in the heat when, several hours later and to cries of 'The Patriarch', Michel Sabbah, clad in pink, eventually enters Manger Square. I can only take my photos now by holding the camera over my head. The crowd has been relaxed throughout but it occurs to me that the Palestine security forces, three days into their rule here, have no experience of crowd control and a sudden surge could easily result in people getting crushed. I'm also not sure that I can last out until the midnight mass which Yasser Arafat is scheduled to attend. I decide to return to Jerusalem by clapped out taxi (five dollars) to rest and to come back later.

But how to get back? Israelis have been told Bethlehem is off limits for Christmas, a closed zone, and what transport will be running is unclear. I've discovered that the Anglican cathedral of St George in Jerusalem runs a coach to Bethlehem in the evening in order to conduct a carol service at the Church of the Nativity. This sounds attractive: my lack of religious conviction has always had to take second place to the pleasure I take in singing carols. So, leaving my camera behind (I've taken enough photos for today), I head over to St George's, where an assortment of English pilgrims and American tourists (some in Father Christmas hats) fills no less than three modern Israeli coaches at three pounds a head. We've got a police escort, to make it easier, and the Israelis take us down the new and eerily dark Bethlehem by pass road, built to allow travel to Hebron (Israeli) without going through the Palestine Authority enclave. At some point we are invisibly handed over to a Palestinian escort, which pushes aside Bethlehem's packed crowds to allow the coaches to come close to the Church of the Nativity. Inside, we get to see the Star of Bethlehem, which marks the apochryphal place of Jesus's birth, before being escorted up to the roof where we have our carol singing pitch for the evening. A lovely idea!

There to welcome us is the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Her Britannic Majesty's Consul and Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Authority, who shakes hands with each of us and stays to listen to an hour's ragged English carol singing. We have no choristers or instruments to help us out. Then Arafat makes a prepared speech before the one TV camera on the roof. I forget what he said, and it scarcely matters, but it was brief and modest. His job is to reassure Christians that they will be secure under Palestinian rule, and much has been made of the fact that his wife was born a Greek Orthodox Christian. He is surrounded by a bodyguard shield, but for the first time today I cannot see a gun..

Well, to stay in Manger Square for the open air TV relay of midnight mass inside the Church would be an anticlimax after this strange encounter, so I go back in the coach to Jerusalem with the Anglicans. The Bishop goes in his Mercedes and H. M. Consul in his Land Rover, a path cleared for both by a blaring, flashing Palestinian police jeep.

It occurs to me that as pilgrims and tourists we haven't spent a shekel, dinar or cent in Bethlehem( which has three legal currencies) and I mention this to the Bishop's Chaplain, asking him to pass on the thought. It was clear from the Bishop's address to us that his sympathies are with the Palestinians; he effectively said 'Today Bethlehem, next year Jerusalem'. So he might well take heed. A compulsory snack, drink or knick knack would have done none of us any harm and the Bethlehem economy a tiny bit of good.

Christmas Day sees me back on the bus to Bethlehem, where it's the morning after the night before. The crowds have gone, and I head to a deserted Post Office to fabricate philatelic souvenirs. They haven't got special Christmas stamps this year, but they have managed a special Palestinian Authority postmark with a candle, holly and what I think we would tend to call wedding bells. I stick regular Palestine Authority stamps on Bethlehem postcards and get them specially cancelled at the post office counter. It's still novel for the post office clerk, who laughs at my eccentricity. We don't have enough language in common for me to explain that with any luck these cards will pay for my holiday.

When you find yourself shaking hands with Yasser Arafat, what do you say?

My knowledge of the situation amounts to this: Rabin is dead. Arafat survives, despite rather more death threats and under pressure from all sides: Israel, on which he is economically dependent and which requires him to clamp down on his extremists; his people, who want an end to poverty and Israeli checkpoints; Hamas, which won't participate in the January elections for what they regard as a Bantustan; Arab states which have their own agendas.

So I shook hands and said the sort of thing someone bent on open air English carol singing might be moved to say.

"Good Luck"

Written 1995, first published on this website 2006.