I had been in exile for 46 years but now I was back and in Bethlehem at Christmas.
A season of joy in Bethlehem that I will never forget
Two weeks after my return to my homeland on May 18, 1994, I decided to go from Gaza to Bethlehem. When I arrived, Nativity square was deserted. The gates of the Nativity Church were shut. I was there before sunset but it was too late. I walked around the square in disappointment. Then something miraculous happened.
The Church bells tolled, store shutters opened up, and the church gates squeaked open. "Welcome to Bethlehem," I was greeted. "When is the old man coming? You are coming to prepare for Abu Ammar's visit aren't you? Ahlan wasahlan." They were asking whether Yasser Arafat would join me.
I was invited into the Church and into the stores but 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 been in Bethlehem for the celebration and I waited eagerly for the 24th of December. Abu Ammar had arrived in Gaza a month after my first visit to Bethlehem, and was equally eager to go. The Israelis informed him that he could not enter the West Bank until control was transferred to the Palestinian Authority. I decided to take the chance anyway.
When I arrived from Gaza late in the afternoon on that Christmas eve, people were already gathering in Nativity square. It was a little cold, but crowd exuded warmth. There was a buzz in the air as the crowd grew. And when word got out that I was there, they hoped that Abu Ammar would come too.
Christmas had a different flavour that year, more happy and joyful. I had been in exile for 46 years but now I was back and in Bethlehem at Christmas. The peace process was flourishing and the Palestinian Authority was establishing the first Palestinian Government in Gaza and Jericho. It was a season for hope.
I went into the Church and was introduced to the clergy there. I had to ask the question: Am I allowed to attend the Christmas Mass? The Israelis refused categorically.
Gady Zohar, the Israeli commander of the Israeli Civil Administration of the West Bank, led these negotiations. Though a few days earlier in Cairo we were negotiating the gradual transfer of authority in the West Bank, he would now not allow me inside a Church. His soldiers would carry out his decision.
The "Status Quo" he said, was to provide seats to the governing authority at the time. Since we were not yet the governing authority in Bethlehem, I could not attend. By letting me inside, the agreement on the West Bank, not yet complete, was being prejudged, he argued.
But everything they did was prejudging the agreement: their settlement activities, their Jerusalem land grab, and their whole occupation of our land. I felt bitter, disappointed and sad, but I did not want to spoil that lovely evening.
But just before the midnight Mass began I was spirited into the Church and taken inside. I watched from an inner balcony near the ceiling of the church as the towering Patriarch Sabah directed the celebration. I regained my serenity, happy to celebrate the Palestinian child in the manger. I imbibed the atmosphere of love and peace that Jesus Christ "Al Sayyed Al Maseeh" brought to Palestine.
The next Christmas was just as joyful. The interim agreement was signed in Washington, and the Palestinian Authority gradually took control of the cities and towns and villages of the West Bank, with the exception of Jerusalem, our Holy City. Bethlehem became a liberated Palestinian city by Christmas.
That next Christmas I entered Bethlehem with my new bride, my brother and friends, accompanying Yasser Arafat and thousands of Palestinians celebrating that year in Bethlehem. And until the year 2000, Abu Ammar would return each year, living in the monastery of the Church of Holy Nativity from the 23rd of December to the 19th of January. He attended Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Armenian Christmas celebrations. He loved it, and Bethlehem loved him.
He worked 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. Arafat would tell me: "Palestine ya Nabeel is Holy because of Christian and Moslem 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".
On December 24, 2001 the Israeli siege prevented him from going to his beloved Bethlehem. He was never able to return. And since Abu Ammar passed away, I have not attended Christmas Mass in the Nativity Church. But I will never forget my first Christmas in Bethlehem and that season of hope and joy.
Dr Nabeel Shaath is a member of the Central Committee of Fatah, in charge of International Relations. He is a senior Palestinian negotiator and former foreign minister.