TEL AVIV – Palestinian Authority security organizations are reportedly on heightened alert in and around Bethlehem, fearing the Islamic State could launch terrorist attacks targeting Christian tourists or sites over the next few days.
Israel’s Ynetnews website quoted Palestinian officials who revealed that over the past few days the PA has arrested 16 Salafist radicals from the Bethlehem area. The arrests were part of a larger effort aimed at thwarting possible terrorist attacks on Christmas or New Year’s Eve.
Bethlehem is home to the Church of the Nativity, which is believed to have been built over a cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus.
The PA suspects the Islamic State is planning on targeting the masses of tourists arriving in the city for the holidays, Christian residents of the city, or the churches in Bethlehem, by planting explosive devices.
In addition, the Palestinian Authority itself and its institutes could also be a target for attacks as the ISIS supporters operating in the area are part of a radical and unpredictable group.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has arrested four ISIS supporters in the West Bank. Two of them were vandalizing Christmas decorations in Jenin near the Arab American University, and in the nearby Christian Arab village Zababdeh. Two other ISIS supporters from Tubas were put in administration detention.
A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces referred Breitbart Jerusalem to the PA for comment.
Adnan Dmeyri, a spokesperson for the PA security forces, confirmed to Breitbart Jerusalem that a number of suspected Salafists were arrested in recent days as part of the preventive measures taken during the holiday season. He refused to confirm any specific terrorist plot against Bethlehem.
Abu Ayna Al-Ansari, a leading Salafist militant based in the Gaza Strip, told Breitbart Jerusalem that the number of Salafists in the West Bank is growing quickly, but claimed he is not aware of any specific plan to attack Bethlehem.
“Still, we don’t recognize this festival that includes alcohol, and women and men being together in the same place. These kind of festivities are not allowed under the caliphate,” Al-Ansari stated.
Amid the ongoing Palestinian “wave of terror” targeting Israelis, tourism to Bethlehem this holiday season was slow, with thin crowds and hotels reporting empty rooms.
The Associated Press reported from Bethlehem on Thursday night:
Several thousand people crowded into Manger Square, admiring the town’s glittering Christmas tree and listening to holiday music played by marching bands and scout troops. Palestinian vendors hawked coffee, tea and Santa hats. Young children sold sticks of gum.
But at 9 p.m., traditionally a bustling time of the evening, there were few tourists to drink local wine sold on the square or to eat freshly fried falafel.
This is not the first terrorist threat discovered in Bethlehem in recent days.
Israel’s Shin Bet security service announced Wednesday that it had arrested members of two large Hamas terrorist cells in the West Bank who were planning mass casualty suicide bombings and other attacks inside Israel.
Some 25 Hamas members were arrested as part of a terrorist cell based in Abu Dis, a West Bank village near Jerusalem. Most of the suspects were students at Al Quds University in Abu Dis.
The cell was led by a 24-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank named Ahmed Azam, who set up an explosives lab in a rented apartment in Abu Dis, according to the Shin Bet indictment.
During the course of the investigation, a second cell consisting largely of Al Quds students was discovered in Bethlehem, including some who had been successfully recruited to carry out suicide bombings.
The Shin Bet announced that Azzam was working on behalf of Hamas in Gaza “to set up a military infrastructure that would carry out bombing attacks against Israeli targets.”
Bethlehem’s Christian population faces regular Islamic intimidation.
At Israel’s founding, Bethlehem was 80% Christian. But after the city was handed over to the Palestinians as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the city’s Christian population plummeted to 23%. This number includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Christians now make up only about 12% of the population in the city limits.
What accounts for the Christian exodus?
As reported at WND:
As soon as he took over Bethlehem, Arafat unilaterally fired the city’s Christian politicians and replaced them with Muslim cronies. He appointed a Muslim governor, Muhammad Rashad A-Jabar, and deposed Bethlehem’s city council, which had nine Christians and two Muslims, reducing the number of Christian councilors to a 50-50 split.
Arafat then converted a Greek Orthodox monastery next to the Church of Nativity, the believed birthplace of Jesus, into his official Bethlehem residence.
Suddenly, after the Palestinians gained the territory, reports of Christian intimidation by Muslims began to surface.
Christian leaders and residents told this reporter they face an atmosphere of regular hostility. They said Palestinian armed groups stir tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets. They spoke of instances in which Christian shopkeepers’ stores were ransacked and Christian homes attacked.
They said in the past, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israelis from Christian hilltop communities, drawing Israeli anti-terror raids to their towns.
Human rights lawyer Justus Weiner told CBN News:
The threat of persecution, including beatings and forced marriages between Christian women and Muslim men, are some of the reasons Christians have left.
Christians in Bethlehem also speak of their land being unilaterally confiscated by Muslim gangs.
“There are many cases in which Christians have their land stolen by the [Muslim] mafia,” said Samir Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem Christian leader and owner of the Beit Sahour-based private Al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station.
“It is a regular phenomenon in Bethlehem. They go to a poor Christian person with a forged power of attorney document, and then they say we have papers proving you’re living on our land. If you confront them, many times the Christian is beaten. You can’t do anything about it. The Christian loses, and he runs away,” Qumsiyeh said.
Last year, a Christian woman from Bethlehem revealed to Fox News that her uncle was murdered because he refused to pay the jizyah, or “protection tax” to Muslims there.
In October, Breitbart News reported on threats to the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, which has been bombed 14 times.
Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.