The Christmas season is upon us in the Holy Land. Here, in the birthplace of Christianity, Christmas extends for a full season, not just one day. After the Catholics and western churches celebrate December 25, the holy day for Greek Orthodox adherents is December 7th, followed by the Armenian celebration of Christmas on January 19th.
Naturally, Bethlehem is the focal point of all the Christmas festivities, and once again this year, Israeli authorities have pledged to do their utmost to ensure free passage of Christian pilgrims in and out of the town in honor of the season.
In 2004, it was terrorists from Bethlehem who perpetrated half of the fatalities from Arab terror attacks on Israeli citizens. Last week, acting on intelligence information, the Israeli Army blew up a car packed with explosives on an Israeli by-pass road a few hundred yards west of Bethlehem. This morning, Molotov cocktails were thrown at soldiers manning the checkpoint between Bethlehem and nearby Jerusalem. Yet, in honor of the Christmas season, Israeli authorities today announced the easing of restrictions to enable any Christian Arab with a permit to come and go to Bethlehem. Only random checks will be made on the busloads of pilgrims traveling in and out of the area.
Of course it's generally not Christian Arabs who've been carrying out terror attacks in Israel, but the prospect of the expected tens of thousands of Arabs crossing in and out of Israel with minimal security checks, all in the name of religious freedom, makes some Israelis uncomfortable.
At a briefing in Jerusalem this week, Israeli army officers Aviv Feigel and Yair Tzarchan of the District Coordinating Liaison office in Bethlehem, explained the special Christmas procedures to journalists and described the "calculated risk" that Israel is taking to preserve religious freedom for all. "Arab vehicles and foreign tourists should all come and feel secure," Feigel said. The soft-spoken, fair-haired officer carefully outlined how Christian Arabs with permits will be able to pass freely in and out of Bethlehem through Israeli checkpoints. He described the newly opened Rachel's Passage checkpoint that cost about $8 million to build in order to ease conditions for Israeli Arabs traveling in and out of Bethlehem. Almost apologetically, Feigel explained that Jewish Israelis are not permitted entry into Bethlehem because "things aren't so secure there for them."
Despite the presence of only one Arab TV crew, Tzarchan addressed his remarks in Arabic, explaining in detail for them how Israeli authorities have tried to tread the fine line between allowing religious freedom and ensuring security for Israeli citizens.
This wasn't exactly what the reporters wanted to hear. "What complaints have you had?" asked one correspondent. Another journalist from a British newspaper told the IDF officers that he'd heard about a Palestinian-American who wasn't let into the country at Ben Gurion airport, as if this called the entire Bethlehem operation into question. A German reporter asked if Rachel's Passage checkpoint is wheelchair accessible. Someone from the BBC's Latin American service wanted to know if Moslems could go back and forth into Israel under the special Christmas regulations. Finally someone piped up with the question that's spooked many reporters from going to Bethlehem this Christmas. What about the threat of an Al Quaeda terror attack to disrupt Christmas at its source? No specific warnings, answered the Israeli officers patiently. "Israel is determined to protect the traditional march of the patriarch into Bethlehem and to ensure religious freedom for all Christians."
Not a statement likely to be replicated anywhere else in the Middle East this Christmas.
Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times. www.jerusalemdiaries.blogspot.com. Her report from Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 2004 was carried in frontpagemag.
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