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The Israeli government's insistence that "the IDF will not leave Bethlehem before Christmas" is not arousing any special interest. After more than two years of terrible violence, it is hard to shock anyone with a complaint about disrupting religious rituals, especially coming from Christians, who, as we know, did not always enable Jews to hold their own rituals.

The Christmas events will therefore be held in the shadow of tanks "placed in strategic places in the city, to prevent acts of terrorism," and the city will be under tight closure "because of high alerts for terrorist attacks."

Indeed, why should anyone be upset that a few thousand Christians will not be able to celebrate their holiday properly? Why should they be accommodated any more than hundreds of thousands of Moslems who have recently been forced to celebrate Id Al-Fitr under curfew and closure? Anyway, threats by Christian residents not to hold any public events during the holiday due to the curfew, the loss of their livelihood, the arbitrary destruction, and arrests is nothing more than a provocation meant to slander Israel.

It will not do them much good, since Israel's status is already at its lowest point and one more accusation will not make any difference in the eyes of a hostile world, tainted with anti-Semitism. The residents' protest against Israel's banning PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's participation in the Christmas mass proves the Palestinians want to mix politics with religion and are using Christmas as a means to return the prestige of "terror leader," which, as everyone knows, has faded thanks to Israel's successful efforts.

As usual, the Israelis gave a free hand to the military commanders to implement the "war against terror" strategy, while almost completely ignoring every other political, moral, religious, ideological and public relations consideration, counting on the overwhelming majority of the public's indifference to all these considerations.

All this is not new. Yet why do the tanks in Nativity Square arouse such acute discomfort and objection, which goes beyond ulterior motives such as public relations damage?

Without a doubt, these reactions have to do with the fact that part of the Israeli public - perhaps a dwindling part - sees itself as belonging to the Western Judeo-Christian culture, for whom Christmas, mass, Christmas carols, and Christmas trees are part of the world reflected from dozens of literary, musical and cinema creations. Perhaps we don't participate in them actively, but they are still part of the culture which identifies us as part of the Western world. Placing a tank under the Christmas tree in Bethlehem's Nativity Square - even "inconspicuously," in the IDF's words - desecrates some universal value.

The fact that Israeli leaders are insensitive to the need to separate, if only for one night, the message of "peace on earth" inherent in Christmas in Bethlehem and the brutal bullying force inherent in the Merkava tank arouses deep concern.

It indicates that Israelis are losing the remains of the culture associating them to the Western-European reference group to which they presume to belong. Together with other worrying signs in the area of education, emigration, politics and the public discourse, one cannot escape the depressing thought that the tank in Nativity Square symbolizes a society whose violent reality has been emptied of moral sensitivity and cultural sophistication, and has been turned into an island, alienated from its geographical as well as spiritual environment.

In other disputes, Christmas has served as an excuse to declare a truce, which often changed the atmosphere and even led to opening a new leaf. In the atmosphere prevailing here, there is no chance that a cease-fire initiative could gain support. But perhaps one may dare hope that at least they'll take the tanks out of Bethlehem and let its residents celebrate their holiday without encountering the soldiers of the occupier.

This is important not only to the residents of Bethlehem and the entire Christian world, but also to those Israelis who have not yet given up their cultural affiliation to the Western world.