December 23, 1995
Web posted at: 4:30 p.m. EST (2130 GMT)
From Correspondent Jerrold Kessel
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- The town of Bethlehem plays a significant role in Christian history. Saturday it also played a major role in Palestinian history.
Thousands attended a rally Saturday to celebrate the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Bethlehem, the sixth West Bank city to be handed over to the Palestinians. The withdrawal, made official on Thursday, marked the end of Israel's 28-year occupation of Bethlehem.
"Peace upon you from this place where the Messiah was born."
-- Yasser Arafat
PLO leader Yasser Arafat arrived for Saturday's celebration by helicopter. Like an electric current, a sudden surge of excitement spread through the crowd packed in Manger Square as the helicopter circled low over the symbol of the hillside town -- the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born 2000 years ago.
This is a unique Christmas for Bethlehem, a heady mix of national aspirations converging with the time for traditional Christian devotions.
"We feel so happy," said one Palestinian who attended the rally. "You see we are all in this place, we all live as Muslims, as Christians as brothers." (119K AIFF sound or 119K WAV sound)
As bells from the ancient church rang, Arafat declared from its roof, "Peace upon you from this place where the Messiah was born," he said of Jesus, whom he called "a Palestinian."
To the delight of the crowds thronging the small square, he went on, "Tomorrow, for the first time, under the Palestinian flag we will celebrate Christmas. I tell the whole world, Christians around the world that Bethlehem, which is liberated, is the city of peace."
In its checkered history, Bethlehem has seen rulers come and go. But this festival of national self-assertion adds a new dimension to what Manger Square has seen just before Christmas.
Some Bethlehem Christians express reservations about the nature of the celebrations.
"It's supposed to be pure Christmas in Bethlehem. No other politics are supposed to be involved in it," said one Christian man. (60K AIFF sound or 60K WAV sound)
But others see this year's celebrations as something special, reflecting the hopes of all.
"It's a special day to Palestinians as a whole and to Christians since it combines two occasions -- Christmas Day and a day of a sort of liberation," said another resident. (153K AIFF sound or 153K WAV sound)
Sensitive to possible criticism that Christian religious celebrations might be overshadowed by Palestinian celebrations, Arafat advanced his address from Christmas Eve, when it had originally been scheduled.
The national element of the twin celebrations could now make way for the more traditional religious ceremonies during which Arafat will be a guest of honor.
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