"We came here to say to President Arafat Happy New Year and to ask God to grant you liberty and to grant liberty for this land," Monsignor Michel Sabbah said on Tuesday in a brief address at Arafat's headquarters, known as the Muqataa. 

Arafat was a regular guest at Midnight Mass in the West Bank town of Bethlehem after his return to the Palestinian territories in 1994, but he has been unable to attend since he was confined to his offices in early December 2001 by the Israeli army. 

Sabbah, who will preside over the traditional Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, said in a possible reference to both Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he hoped leaders would emerge committed to peace. 

Praying for peace

People on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide "want
peace and the problem is they must free themselves from leaders who do not want peace and want war," Sabbah added. "We hope that leaders will emerge that want peace and will work for peace." 

A group of schoolgirls from the Ramallah area sang at the
ceremony, with a tribute to 74-year-old Arafat. 

"If you do not come to Bethlehem there will be sadness in the
hearts of everyone," one song went. 

The youngsters also made an appeal to Israelis. "You must
realise that we are human beings who are looking for peace and happiness," a verse went. 

Easing restrictions

Travel restrictions will be eased for worshippers and tourists wishing to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, although existing checkpoints will stay in place, Israeli officials said on Tuesday. 

Bethlehem is the home for the 
Palestinian Christian minority

"Christmas will be celebrated in Bethlehem with the maximum attendance of worshippers, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world," foreign ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled told reporters. 

"Even though Israel doesn't maintain a presence in Bethlehem and is not involved directly with the celebrations, many branches of the government and of the military are taking active steps to promote holiday worship... all in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation," he said. 

Israel handed security back in Bethlehem to the Palestinians in July, days after a temporary truce was unilaterally declared by militant groups. Although the ceasefire collapsed seven weeks later, Bethlehem is still under Palestinian control. 

More tourists

Peled said about 100,000 tourists were expected to enter Israel for the holiday season, a larger number than in previous years since the latest Palestinian uprising broke out in September 2000, but far short of pre-intifada levels when Bethlehem alone received an average of 88,000 visitors a month. 

100,000 tourists are expected
to attend Christmas celebrations

Colonel Uzi Moskowitz of the Central Command's operations office said "none of Bethlehem's three checkpoints will be lifted,"although he insisted there were "guidelines to enable the festivities to take place in the most proper manner." 

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Beaudoin, who works for the office of the goverment's coordinator in the territories, said he had "special instructions not to have too many delays" at Bethlehem's checkpoints. 

"We have made possible for Christians, pilgrims and Palestinians to move within the West Bank and take part in the rituals on Christmas Day," he added. 

Checkpoint lifted

One checkpoint near Ramallah, home to a Christian minority, had been lifted and controls at a checkpoint in the Jericho area, in the southern West Bank, will be eased. 

Another security official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said "all people that wish to enter Bethlehem can do so, barring current and updated security information. 

"But everyone will be checked going out of Bethlehem for fear
weapons will be smuggled out," he said, adding that "Bethlehem continues to be a safe haven for terrorists, especially from Hebron," in the central West Bank.