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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arafat Barred From Bethlehem

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat vowed Sunday to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem despite Israel's decision to block his annual pilgrimage to the town where Jesus was born.

Israel said it decided to bar Arafat's journey to Bethlehem, through roads sealed off in places by Israeli tanks and troops in the West Bank, because he was not acting "to dismantle Palestinian terror organizations."

Palestinian officials said diplomatic efforts were under way, with mediation by the United States, European Union and United Nations to persuade Israel to lift the ban.

But Arafat remained defiant, telling reporters that "no one can prevent me from going" to Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem. He said Saturday he would visit the town "even if I have to go there on foot."

Israel destroyed Arafat's helicopters in the Gaza Strip and stationed tanks near his Ramallah office after a Palestinian bus ambush in the West Bank killed 10 Israelis nearly two weeks ago.

It subsequently declared Arafat irrelevant and along with the United States and the European Union piled pressure on him to dismantle militant groups behind a wave of suicide bombings in Israel that killed 29 people in the last month.

But Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported Sunday that Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres drafted an interim peace plan with Palestinian parliamentary speaker Ahmed Korei for the establishment of a Palestinian state on 42 percent of the West Bank and most of the Gaza Strip.

Neither publicly confirmed the report, which said the state would be set up within two months of the signing of a deal and talks on a final accord would start nine to 12 months later.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office dismissed the reported plan as fiction. Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said in a statement such a proposal would be a nonstarter that would keep Palestinians confined to "cantons."

Sharon was quoted by Germany's Die Zeit newspaper as saying he was prepared to negotiate peace with the Palestinians if Israel's security was assured.

Arafat has attended Christmas Eve services at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity since the town came under Palestinian rule in 1995.

Peres said Arafat should be allowed to go to Bethlehem.

"I don't want our prevention of Arafat visiting Bethlehem to become the talk of Christmas around the Christian world. ... Let him go, pray, do what he wants to do," Peres told Army Radio.

The Palestinian Authority has said it has arrested dozens of militants. Israel has said Palestinian security forces have yet to target the masterminds behind attacks on Israelis.

Six Palestinian teenagers were killed and more than 80 wounded in a Gaza gun battle Friday between Palestinian police and militants angered by the roundup.

The clashes marked the most serious internal challenges to Arafat since the Palestinian Authority's establishment in 1994.

The militant Hamas movement said Friday it was halting attacks in Israel in the interests of Palestinian unity. Islamic Jihad officials put out mixed signals on following suit.

Israel has said the announcements by some militants were part of a secret deal with Arafat to avoid his crackdown. Palestinians say it is now Israel's turn to ease the conflict.