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Christmas with Arafat in Bethlehem - Nabil Sha'ath

Dec. 24, 2010 5:55 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 26, 2010 12:29 P.M.)
Two weeks after my return to my homeland in May 1994, after the signing of the Gaza-Jericho agreement, I decided to go from the Gaza Strip to Bethlehem and Jerusalem after a long work day. I arrived at sunset.

It was too late. Nativity Square was deserted. The shops were closed. The gates of the Nativity Church were shut. I walked around the square, and then turned to go back to my car, in desolation and disappointment. Then something miraculous happened: Suddenly, the square came back to life. The church bells started tolling, store shutters went up, and church gates squeaked open.

Many people came saying, "Welcome to Bethlehem. "When is the old man coming? You are coming to prepare for Abu Ammar's visit, aren't you? Ahlan wasahlan (Welcome)." I was invited into the church, into the stores, and into the hearts of the Talhamis, the people of Bethlehem. Nobody accepted a penny for what I bought. I shall never forget that moment, nor will I ever forget the generosity of Bethlehem and its people.

The happy moment stayed in my mind until Christmas. I had never attended Christmas in Bethlehem before, and I waited eagerly for the 24th of December 1994. Yasser Arafat had arrived to Gaza a month after my first visit, and he was eager to go, but he was informed that he would not be allowed in the West Bank until power was transferred from Israel to the Palestinian Authority.

I decided to take a chance. I left Gaza late in the afternoon. People were already starting to gather in Nativity Square. It was a little cold, but the warmth exuded by everybody was overwhelming. As the square got more crowded, there was a hum in the air. "Nabil Sha'ath is in Bethlehem, and Yasser Arafat may come as well," people said.

The peace process was flourishing. The PA was establishing the first Palestinian government in Gaza and Jericho. There were problems, but we were doing our best to deal with them. "Gaza first" was leading to the West Bank soon. Christmas had a different flavor. It was happy and joyful. I was in the clouds. I'd been in exile for 46 years, but I was back, and attending Christmas in Bethlehem.

I paid a visit to the mayor and municipality. There were many West Bank personalities there. I went back to the square. I kissed and hugged everybody in the square, the usual Palestinian three kisses on the cheeks. The visiting choirs and musical bands were starting to perform on the stage set up especially for the event.

I went into the church and was introduced to all the clergy there. I asked if I was allowed to attend mass. That led to hours of negotiations. The Israelis refused categorically to allow me in. Gady Zohar, the Israeli commander of the Civil Administration of the West Bank, led these negotiations. He was negotiating with me in Cairo the gradual transfer of power in to the PA in the West Bank, a few days earlier, but he would not allow me inside the church. He had his soldiers to carry out his decision.

The "status quo," he said, gives the seats inside the church to the governing authority at the time, and since we were not yet the governing authority in Bethlehem, they would not let me in, and my being inside prejudged the agreement on the West Bank that was not yet agreed upon. Of course, everything they did was prejudging the agreement; their settlement activities, their Jerusalem land grab, and their whole occupation of our land. My attendance of Christmas mass became the only "illegal activity" that they fought to prevent that evening. It became obvious that the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was consulted, and the answer was no.

I felt bitter, disappointed and sad, but I certainly I did not want to spoil that lovely evening.

Just before the midnight mass I was spirited into the church and taken up inside. I watched the mass and the towering figure of Patriarch Sabah, who directed it from an inner balcony close to the ceiling of the church accompanied by some wonderful priests. I was fascinated. I calmed down and regained my serenity. I was again a happy Palestinian child in the manger of Bethlehem, imbibing from the holy atmosphere all the spirituality, love, and peace that Jesus Christ, "As-Sayyed Al-Maseeh," brought to Palestine.

Next year, I thought, inshallah, I will attend Christmas inside the church, with Yasser Arafat. And I did.

The interim agreement was signed in Washington, and the PA gradually took up control of the cities and major towns and villages of the West Bank, with the exception of Jerusalem, our Holy City. Bethlehem became a liberated Palestinian city by Christmas. We became the governing authority. By Christmas of 1995, I had been married to Raja Abu Ghazaleh; a lovely woman from Nablus who worked with Faisal Husseiny at the PLO's Orient House in Jerusalem.

On the 24th of December 1995, I entered Bethlehem with my bride and my brother, and friends, accompanying Arafat to our joy and that of thousands of Palestinians who celebrated Christmas that year in Bethlehem. Raja and I were seated upfront inside the Nativity Church, just behind Arafat and his wife. The square was jammed with thousands celebrating Christmas. Arafat was finally here.

From that day until Christmas of the year 2000, Arafat lived in the monastery of the Church of Holy Nativity from the 23rd of December to the 19th of January every year, attending Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Armenian Christmas celebrations. I was with him most of the time. He loved it, and Bethlehem loved him. He worked so hard to rebuild and renovate Bethlehem for the celebrations of the third millennium of the birth of Jesus Christ. He invited world leaders to attend, and many of them came to participate.

He used to tell me, "Palestine, Nabeel, is holy because of its Christian and Muslim holy places and citizens. Without Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Christians, Palestine would not be the holy land. We would be an ordinary occupied third world country." He married a Christian Palestinian who accompanied him every year. He flourished in Bethlehem and the city loved him. This was his happy time every year. On the 24th of December 2001, the Israeli siege prevented him from going to his beloved city. He was never able to go there again.

The Israelis never allowed him to visit Jerusalem, either, his birthplace and the embodiment of all his dreams about Palestine, and a Palestinian state. The closest he came to Jerusalem was a distant view from a helicopter transporting him from Gaza to Jericho in 1994.

We had travelled together. He saw the golden Dome of the Rock from a distance, and he wept in silence. He expressed his wish to be buried in Jerusalem at the Al-Aqsa Mosque; the Israelis would not even allow that. He was buried temporarily in Ramallah, until the noble Jerusalem, as he called East Jerusalem, returns as the free capital of Palestine.

After Arafat passed away, I have not attended mass at the Church of the Nativity. But I still love Bethlehem, and I have never forgotten my first Christmas there.

The author is a Fatah leader and member of the PLO negotiating team with Israel.
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