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Arafat Rejects Al Qaeda Aid; Israelis to Bar Arafat From Christmas in Bethlehem

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat demanded Usama bin Laden stop using the Palestinian struggle for statehood as a reason for the Al Qaeda terror network's attacks, in an interview published Sunday, while Israel said it will bar Arafat from traveling to Bethlehem for Christmas for a second straight year.

"I'm telling him [bin Laden] directly not to hide behind the Palestinian cause," Arafat said in an interview published in the London Sunday Times.

Bin Laden "never helped us, he was working in another completely different area and against our interests," Arafat said.

Arafat denounced the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States and the Palestinian leadership has sought to distinguish between its fight with Israel and Al Qaeda's terror campaign.

The Israeli government, in turn, has sought to link its conflict with the Palestinians to the U.S.-led fight against Al Qaeda. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, blaming Arafat for more than two years of Mideast violence, has tried to persuade the United States that Palestinian terrorism is in the same category as Al Qaeda terrorism, but the U.S. government has not gone along.

Last month Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for twin terror attacks against Israelis in Kenya, calling the attacks a "Ramadan greeting" to the Palestinian people, referring to the Muslim holy month. The statement was seen as an attempt to win support for the terror network in the Arab and Muslim world, where resentment of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is high.

Recently the Israelis claimed that Al Qaeda members had infiltrated into the Gaza Strip, but the Palestinians hotly denied that.

Arafat aide Ahmed Abdel Rahman said, "We are not fighting the entire world, civilization and people. We don't want our just cause to be used as a cover by Sharon and his government to continue their escalation -- as though if the U.S. is fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, so Israel is fighting Al Qaeda in Palestine."

Meanwhile, the decision to ban Arafat from Bethlehem emerged from the Sunday meeting of Israel's Cabinet, said an Israeli government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. At the session, Israel's military commander said his troops would remain in Bethlehem through the Christmas holiday.

The Palestinians, who take great pride in hosting the Christmas services in Manger Square that attract Christian pilgrims from around the world, sharply criticized the Israeli move.

"The Israeli decision ... is a violation of their promises to the American administration, the Vatican and the pope," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, Arafat's spokesman. "All the excuses that they give are lies and are rejected."

The Israeli decision to bar Arafat was seen as part of the ongoing Israeli effort to keep the Palestinian leader isolated at his battered West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. During several sieges of the compound this year he was not allowed to leave, and officials have often hinted that if he left the country he might not be allowed back.

Arafat is a Muslim, but since returning from exile and becoming head of the Palestinian Authority, he regularly attended the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, beginning in 1995.

Last Christmas, Israel prevented Arafat -- whom it blamed for failing to prevent terrorist attacks -- from traveling the 12 miles from Ramallah to Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is heavily dependent on tourism, particularly during the Christmas season. Visitors pack Manger Square, just outside the Church of the Nativity, which was built in the 4th century to mark the spot where tradition holds that Jesus was born.

The Mideast conflict has kept most foreign tourists away for the past two years, and Palestinian Christians say Israeli travel restrictions make it difficult for them to reach the town. Low-key services are planned, and turnout this year is sure to be small.

Israel's security agencies continue to receive warnings about possible Palestinian attacks coming from Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, and withdrawing the troops would leave Israel more vulnerable, the Israeli officials said.

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the military chief of staff, told the Israeli Cabinet that troops will maintain full control of Bethlehem over Christmas, but will allow Christian religious services to take place in the town, where the 30,000 Palestinian residents are about half-Christian and half-Muslim.

Israeli soldiers have occupied Palestinian cities in the West Bank for most of the past six months in an attempt to halt, or at least limit, Palestinian homicide bombings and other attacks.

In Bethlehem, Israeli troops entered in June and pulled out in August, citing its relative calm. However, the soldiers stormed back into Bethlehem on Nov. 22, a day after a homicide bomber came from the town and blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus, killing 11 people.

In other developments, three Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem were indicted Sunday for allegedly planning to ambush Sharon's security guards as they headed to work at the prime minister's Jerusalem residence, according to court records.

In another court case, three members of a Palestinian cell were sentenced to multiple life sentences Sunday for orchestrating attacks that killed 35 people.

In Nablus, AP photographer Nasser Ishtayeh and Associated Press Television News cameraman Abdel Rahman Khabeisa were detained by Israeli troops for five hours, along with four other Palestinian journalists working for foreign media. They were covering a clash between Israeli troops and stone-throwing youths.

Israel's army spokesman's office said the group of journalists were violating the curfew in the city by being outside without press accreditation. Israel's government withdrew press accreditation from Palestinian journalists a year ago.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian security officials said seven houses were demolished and two teenage sisters seriously injured when tanks and bulldozers moved into the outskirts of Rafah, a few yards from the Jewish settlement of Morag. The military said soldiers blew up two buildings used by Palestinians to set off explosions.