VATICAN, Dec 27, 02  ( -- The Vatican's diplomatic representative in the Holy Land has sharply condemned Israel's strategy for dealing with Palestinian terrorists.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio in Jerusalem, said that Israel's policies amount to "unjust collective punishment" of the Palestinian people. Speaking to the Italian daily newspaper Avvenire, the archbishop said that he does not question the right and duty of the Israeli government to combat terrorism. But the means that Israel employs, he said, tend to "treat every resident as a terrorist."

"That approach does not combat terrorism; it creates new terrorists," the archbishop said.

Archbishop Sambi said that he was pleased with the Israeli decision to pull troops out of Bethlehem for the Christmas celebrations-- although he pointed out that the withdrawal was only partial, and a heavy troop presence remained just outside the city. Still, the papal nuncio remarked, the traditional observance of Christmas at the Nativity basilica was held "without exterior signs of celebration, but with intense participation" by the faithful who could attend.

Nevertheless, the papal legate continued, it would be "even wiser" for Israel to make the troop withdrawal permanent, ending the effective army occupation of Bethlehem. The curfew there, he observed, "not only paralyzes things at present, but limits the future." Education of children has been suspended, medical treatment interrupted, and all business stopped. "Requiring people to stay shut up in their own homes only stimulates their desire for vengeance," the archbishop said.

Archbishop Sambi said that he was disappointed by the failure of Christians from elsewhere in the world to show their support for the Christians of the Holy Land. He recalled that he was especially disappointed during the occupation of the Nativity basilica in Bethlehem in April 2002, when he had expected "a general cry from the whole Christian world, to express their love and interest in a place that is central to our faith." No such cry was heard, he remarked, with one exception. "Only the Pope, with moving insistence, mentioned the situation many times," he said.

Avvenire also reported that Archbishop Sambi had received a phone call from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Christmas Day, conveying his best wishes on the feast. It was the first time that an Israeli government leader had offered personal Christmas greetings to a Vatican representative.



BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Dec 27, 02 ( - The Israeli
army re-entered Bethlehem on Thursday, re-imposing a curfew
following two days of freedom during the Christmas holiday.

The army had clamped down on Bethlehem last month after a
Palestinian suicide bomber from city blew up a bus in
Jerusalem, killing 11 Israelis. The soldiers pulled back
from the city on Tuesday following a plea from Pope John
Paul to allow Christmas to be celebrated unfettered.

The returning troops fired teargas at shoppers in the town
center on Thursday, ordering them to return to their homes.
"The curfew was put back in place a short time ago for
operational needs," an Israeli military source said.

Meanwhile, raids in other West Bank cities left seven
Palestinians dead and militants vowing revenge. Israeli
military sources called the raids "counter-terrorism
operations." One of the dead was believed to be a member of
the Hamas terrorist group.