900 Palestinian Troops to Deploy in Bethlehem Ahead of Christmas

Palestinian security forces ask Israel to allow Bethlehem troops to stay on permanently.

About 900 Palestinian troops will be sent to Bethlehem to maintain order during Christmas celebrations, and the Palestinians are asking Israel to let the reinforcements stay on after the holiday, officials said Monday.

In recent months, Palestinian security forces have deployed in the West Bank cities of Nablus, Jenin and Hebron, as part of a law-and-order campaign by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Bethlehem would become the next city on the list if the extra forces are allowed to remain. Diab al-Ali, a senior Palestinian security commander, said negotiations with Israel are continuing and that a decision is expected by the end of the week.

Abbas is trying to strengthen his grip on the West Bank and to reassure Israel and the international community that his forces can impose order and rein in militants. However, Israel retains overall security control, and Israeli troops often carry out arrest raids despite the presence of Palestinian security forces.

Israeli officials confirmed the Christmas deployment. The Israeli army had no immediate comment on the request to allow the Palestinian troops to extend their presence.

Bethlehem, meanwhile, is expecting a good Christmas season, said Mayor Victor Batarseh. Information Minister Riad Malki said the number of tourists to the Palestinian areas has grown steadily since 2006, following a sharp decline in Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

Malki said almost 1.2 million tourists have visited the West Bank this year, compared to 700,000 in all of 2007, and 400,000 in 2006. Hotel occupancy was 70 percent in 2008, he added.

The surge in tourism has created 12,000 new jobs in Bethlehem, biblical Jericho and the city of Ramallah, he said.

Abbas, meanwhile, is gearing up for a political showdown with his bitter rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, which seized control of Gaza by force in June 2007. Hamas contends that Abbas' term as president of the Palestinian Authority ends on Jan. 8, or four years after his election.

Abbas' aides say he has another year on the job, citing a constitutional amendment that was never ratified by parliament. On Sunday, PLO leaders meeting in Ramallah, tried to give Abbas a boost by giving him the new title of president of the Palestinian state. It's a title previously held by Abbas' predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Sunday's vote by the PLO Central Committee has little practical meaning since it does not give Abbas additional authority. In any case, Abbas has said he intends to stay on as Palestinian leader.