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Israel Internet Use is Up


Israel currently has some 2.5 million internet users aged 13 and older - up from 2.2 million in February of this year. So reports a TNS-Teleseker TIM survey. Daily users among those who are connected have risen from 68% to 74% over the same period. Some 53% of Israeli households have an internet connection - and over 80% of these are hooked up by cable or ADSL. Israelis' main use for the internet is the pursuit of information and data in various areas, including travel, business, economics, and sports.

Eight Palestinians Killed as Israeli Tanks Move into Gaza Refugee Camp

By VOA News

Palestinian sources said at least eight Palestinians have been killed and more than 30 others wounded, including several children, during an Israeli military incursion into the southern Gaza Strip. Israeli troops, tanks and armored vehicles swept into the Rafah refugee camp Tuesday, in what the Israeli army said was part of ongoing efforts to find and destroy arms smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Gaza.

Tuesday's death toll is the highest since Israeli raids on refugee camps in October killed 14 Palestinians. Late Monday, violence also killed two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian militant in Gaza.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned Tuesday's raid, which came as efforts were being made to restart the stalled peace process. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has also issued a statement "strongly" condemning the Israeli incursion, saying Israel, as an occupying power, must protect civilians.

And Israeli police said they have arrested several Palestinians in connection with Monday's assault on Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque. Palestinian official Farouk Kaddoumi has arrived in Cairo to apologize for the incident, in which Palestinians angry over Maher's meeting with Israel's prime minister shoved and jostled the Egyptian diplomat.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Patriarch of the Holy Land, Michel Sabbah, has appealed to Palestinians and Israelis to make peace and end the suffering of both peoples. In his Christmas message, the Palestinian clergyman urged both sides to negotiate a settlement under a land for peace formula.

Intifada Adds to Reasons Why Christians are Leaving Bethlehem

By Ross Dunn (VOA-Bethlehem)

After more than three years of violence and hardship, Christian residents are continuing to move out of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where the Bible says Jesus was born. But others say they are determined to live through the current hard times in the hope that one day the town that for many is a symbol of peace, will actually be at peace.

The turn of the century seemed to herald a turnaround for those living in the town known as the cradle of Christianity. It was predicted that a flood of Christian tourists would mark the 2000th anniversary of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and this would provide much-needed jobs and investment for years after. But as 2004 approaches, the dream has clearly not materialized and residents are struggling to survive.

One of those who took the gamble on a revival in tourism was local businessman Edward Tabash, who invested in the building of a large souvenir shop on the main road between the Bethlehem and Jerusalem. "This place was built with my partners, and we built it with the dream that millions of people are going to come and visit the Holy Land," he said. "It sells olive wood, mother of pearl jewelry."

At first, it seemed that Tabash had hit on a successful plan, as the business began to thrive. But he had not factored in the possibility that there would be renewed violence between the Israelis and Palestinians that started in September 2000. "We started with only seven workers [and] by 2000 we had 36 salesmen in this store," he recalled. "And then when the intifada [uprising] broke out, everything collapsed, and today we only have three workers working officially in this store."

Before the onset of violence, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people, Tabash used to host up to 12 busloads of tourists every day. But since the fighting began, he has only seen a trickle of tourists. And like many other businesses in a town that is dependent on tourism, he is coping with daily financial losses. Only in recent months has he had cause for some hope as he saw some pilgrims beginning to make visits after a couple of months of relative quiet.

Other Christians in Bethlehem have not been able to hold out. Atallah Zakaria has seen many of his fellow Christians move abroad. "There are a lot of people leaving. The situation is very bad. For me and my family, I cannot leave. It means a lot for us that Jesus is born in Bethlehem. We are a witness to Jesus. It is my home."

His house is only meters away from the Church of the Nativity; built over the spot that tradition holds is where Jesus was born. But although it is one of the most revered sites in Christianity, the sanctuary has not been immune from the conflict. The shrine came under siege last year after Palestinian militants shot their way into the church in an attempt to escape arrest from Israeli soldiers.

Since the start of the Palestinian uprising, there have been at least six Israeli military incursions into Bethlehem. Local officials say these raids by the Israeli military and closures of the West Bank have cost more than $5 million in damage to private and public property, and countless millions in lost tourism.

Palestinian officials say unemployment in Bethlehem has soared to 65 percent, and more than 60 percent of the town's residents are living in poverty. Mayor Hanna Nasser cannot recall a worse Christmas, adding that there will be no organized celebration because there is no money to hold one. He says anyone expecting to see a big party like the town hosted in Manger Square in past years would be disappointed.

Souvenir shop owner Edward Tabash says the situation will only improve when tourists feel it is safe to travel to the area again. And he has not given up hope. "We still have some hope. Without hope, we would not be here, and we are hoping that both sides will understand that force is not going to accomplish anything, but forgiveness and reconciliation and understanding each other. This is the right way."

From his front door, Tabash can see the Israeli military checkpoint at the entrance to the town, where soldiers are examining cars and pedestrians. He says he hopes that one day soon both Israelis and Palestinians will realize that they need each other in order to survive, and to bring peace to this town that for Christians around the world is a symbol of just that.

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