Great joy in Bethlehem: Israeli troops withdraw As Palestinians celebrate, Christians ponder future

BETHLEHEM — BETHLEHEM -- The last Israeli soldier riding the last truck out of Bethlehem fended off a surging crowd and raised his arms in farewell as the Israeli army withdrew last night.

Within minutes, fireworks painted the sky and a jubilant river of Palestinians flowed through Manger Square to tear down the fence at the Israeli police station.


Bethlehem erupted with joy. Israel's departure after 28 years of occupation showed how little it had won the hearts or minds of the Palestinians.

Even those who have misgivings about the future of the city and the new Palestinian Authority that will govern it surged into the center of the city to celebrate as church bells pealed.


"We have been hoping for this for so long. This was our dream, to see the Israelis go," said George Bandak, 59, who is blind and came to Manger Square to feel the excitement of the moment.

Israel has handed over control of six West Bank cities -- Jericho, Jenin, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Nablus and Bethlehem -- under the peace accord with the Palestinians. Israeli troops are scheduled to leave Ramallah, on Jerusalem's northern boundary, next week and partly withdraw from troubled Hebron in March.

Israeli roadblocks surround the cities, and the majority of the West Bank remains in army control as both sides prepare for another set of negotiations on the final, permanent status of those lands. Still, residents of Bethlehem proclaimed their "liberation."

"This is such a special night. The world cannot imagine how we feel after this many years," said Nabil Shihada, a 24-year-old cook. "We know the future will be better with our own government and our own police."

Bethlehem's immediate future includes more celebrations. Christmas remains the climax of the year for this biblical city of 17,000, which is dependant on tourism. And Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, is expected to visit for the first time on Christmas Eve.

There will be a gala public greeting for Mr. Arafat. Privately, many in town are not pleased to see the Muslim political leader coming on what is supposed to be a Christian religious holiday.

"If Arafat comes on Christmas, it will be a national day, not a religious one," said Johnny Giacaman, whose family runs an olivewood souvenir business.

The grumbling over Mr. Arafat's visit exposes one of the worries of those pondering Bethlehem's future after the Israeli departure. Once an overwhelmingly Christian town, about 65 percent of the residents now are Muslim, and there is friction between the two religions. Christians in Bethlehem wonder how they will fare as a minority under the Muslim-dominated Palestinian authority.


"Of course we are worried about problems. The Muslim fundamentalists try to make problems with Christians," said Wa'el Abdulla, 24, at the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem. "We hope the Palestinian Authority will control them."

Elias Freij, a Christian who has been Bethlehem's mayor for 24 years, dismisses talk of conflict as "hallucinations and imagination."

"We have our churches and they have their mosques, and we pray to one god," he said. "There is no problem between the two."

But Christians are leaving Bethlehem, as they are throughout the Middle East. They are leaving for education and better jobs abroad, and to escape the political tensions.

Bernard Sabilla, a professor at Bethlehem University, believes the end of the Israeli occupation will boost the economy and encourage Christians to stay. But the economy depends on tourism, and the future of tourism after last night's withdrawal is uncertain.

"Business won't be as good this year. Tourists will be afraid of this change of power," said Jack Giacaman. "They are told in Israel that all Arabs are murderers and thieves, and charge too much."


Mr. Freij predicts that this Christmas will draw more tourists than ever. Last year, about 10,000 visitors came on Christmas Eve.

But Israel still controls the checkpoints around the city. The first exercise of that control was not encouraging for Bethlehem's tourist trade. Israel yesterday declared Bethlehem off limits to Israelis. Last week, it put up a sign saying that only tourists traveling in groups would be permitted, though the sign was removed after protests by the mayor.

"We know our main source of income is tourism," said Mr. Freij, whose family owns several of the larger tourist shops in the city.

"It's not in the interests of either the Israelis or the Palestinians to make access to Bethlehem difficult," Mr. Sabilla said.

Indeed, the majority of tourists in Israel are Christians who want to see Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

But problems of the future seemed to dim in the colored flashes of fireworks and the music that enveloped Manger Square.


"There are good Jews and bad Jews, good Christians and bad Christians, good Muslims and bad ones," said a Palestinian bus driver who gave his name only as Nabil. "I think after tonight we will all be able to live together, and things will be fine."