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>Israel Faxx
>PD Dec. 24, 1996, Vol. 4, No. 233

Mid-East War Risk Can No Longer be Termed Low

Israel's air force intelligence chief has said the probability of war with the Arabs could no longer be characterized as low, and Syria remains "Israel's number one confrontation state." He also said if Iran possessed nuclear weapons, Israel would consider it "an intolerable situation."

Bethlehem Christmas is Sparse

By Al Pessin (VOA-Bethlehem)

Bad economic times and uncertainty about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are putting something of a damper on Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, the town where Christians believe Jesus was born. But local officials, clergy, and business people are doing their best to put on Christmas-as-usual.

The Muslim call to prayer mingles with church bells and traffic noise on Bethlehem's Manger Square, where Christmas decorations set the theme. But a bad local economy and concerns about possible renewed conflict with Israel compete to set the tone. Farid Azizeh is the owner of a restaurant on Manger Square and a member of the Bethlehem City Council.

"The people they didn't work. They can't go to Jerusalem. They can't go to Israel. And the West Bank here without Israel, nothing. We don't know, as I told you, what may happen -- the end of the peace process -- nobody knows 'til now."

Just outside Azizeh's restaurant, Manger Square is ready. Lights are strung, stores are bulging with souvenirs, and in the Church of the Nativity there is a special attraction.

The church is built over the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born. And six weeks ago some people believe there was another miracle at the site. Church worker Sadiqa Hamida explains that a portrait of Jesus at the top of one of the church's pillars has been blinking its eyes, and actually cried one day.

Hamida says she believes it was a miracle, and a sign from God. She speculates that the event was a sign of Jesus' sorrow at Bethlehem's problems, or a call to faith, or perhaps a sign of some event to come -- but she is not sure what.

Other church officials caution against declaring that a miracle happened until the reports can be confirmed through religious procedures. But the few tourists in Bethlehem this week craned their necks to get a look at the icon, and marveled at how its right eye sometimes appears to be open, sometimes closed. Believers point out streaks on the column, which they say are the portrait's dried tears. Skeptics say light from the church's many candles is playing tricks, and the streaks are from a leak in the roof.

But with or without a fresh miracle, Christmas will come to Bethlehem tonight. And the city's mayor, Elias Freij, plans full-fledged celebrations, and hopes for large crowds in a show of support for the Palestinian people.

Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat will attend Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for the second time, and there will be choirs and visitors from around the world. But the city will be hard put to top, or even match last year's Christmas celebration, which came just a few days after the end of Israel's 28-year occupation.

Bethlehem has faced Christmas in times of trouble before -- occupation, uprising, various economic crises. This year, the religious and celebratory requirements of Christmas will be fulfilled. But if the days leading up to the holiday are any indication, this christmas in Bethlehem may lack the luster it has had in some years.

Immigration is Down

Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg spoke against the trend of decreasing immigration to Israel from Western countries, at yesterday's meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive. A drop by over 10% in the number of immigrants from the United States and Canada has been reported in the first 11 months of 1996, in comparison with the previous year.

Similar figures are seen regarding immigration from Great Britain, Uruguay, Brazil, Italy and Spain. On the other hand, immigration from France has increased by more than 20 percent as compared to last year. Burg reported that the Jewish Agency is now switching to long-term planning for immigration, in which five-year plans will be formulated for the immigration of Jews from Western countries.

Regarding immigration from the former Soviet Union, Burg quoted statistics showing that the percentage of immigrants from the CIS this year stands at about 5 percent of the total Jewish population there, similar to 1994 and 1995. By the end of the moth, some 58,600 immigrants will have arrived in Israel from among the estimated 1.1 million people eligible to immigrate.

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