Christmas brings new hope of peace
Pilgrims and a new Palestinian leadership celebrated Christmas in the town of Jesus's birth with prayers for peace on Saturday, lifted by fresh hope following Yasser Arafat's death.
At midnight mass, moderate leader Mahmoud Abbas filled the seat which had been left empty for Arafat for three Christmases past because Israel had stopped him traveling to the West Bank town - accusing him of fomenting bloodshed, a charge he denied.
Welcoming the new leaders, the Latin Patriarch for the Holy Land, a Palestinian, urged all parties to end violence.
"It has lasted too long," Michel Sabbah, Pope John Paul's representative, said in his message.
"It is time for Palestine and Israel to defeat the evil of violence and give birth to a society of brothers and sisters in which nobody is subject to another, nobody is occupied by another and nobody threatens the security of another."
Palestine Liberation Organization leader Abbas, who urges an end to fighting and wants talks with Israel, is expected to win an election next month to choose a successor to Arafat.
Amid the incense and prayers, the silver-haired Abbas in his gray businessman's suit cut a very different figure to Arafat, who favored olive uniforms and a black and white headdress. Abbas, like Arafat and most Palestinians, is a Muslim.
"We extend our hand to the Israelis. We want to negotiate, to reach peace - a peace built on justice and right," Abbas told a meeting in Bethlehem on Friday evening.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has also called 2005 a year of opportunity for peace.
At a main roadblock into Bethlehem, Israeli troops had posted a sign reading "Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year," though another nearby ordered people to stop to have their papers checked.
Sections of the barrier Israel is erecting in the West Bank run up to the edge of the road leading into Bethlehem, lending a forbidding air. Israel says the barrier keeps suicide bombers out of its cities. Palestinians call it a bid to annex land.
Despite intermittent bursts of rain, hundreds of pilgrims flocked to Manger Square.
"We can sense a little more optimism here now with Arafat gone," said visitor Bob Dyer of Montreal, Canada. "We wanted to come last year but it seemed too tense."
But the tourists were no more numerous than the armed Palestinian police keeping order and directing traffic. Rows of small trees were decked out with white lights.
"There are still very few tourists. It really isn't anywhere near normal yet. There's a long way to go," said Ibrahim Giacaman, who owns a souvenir shop in the square.
"People here fear one big explosion can put us back where we were three years ago."
At Bethlehem's Paradise Hotel, which reopened two weeks ago after being rebuilt from ruins left by Israeli tank fire at militants in 2001, owner George Abu Aita said occupancy was 20 percent for Christmas, with most of the guests Israeli Arabs.
"It seems most of the pilgrims coming here are just coming for a quick in-and-out, and not to stay overnight. But it's better than last year, when we were closed. It is too early to conclude there is a recovery here."