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Death Threats Mar Mideast Pageant

Sixteen Israeli girls donned evening gowns and bathing suits in a beauty pageant Tuesday on a contentious dividing line between Israel and a Palestinian area, but their Palestinian counterparts from the nearby West Bank town of Bethlehem did not show up.

Eight girls from Bethlehem, all of them Christians, were to participate in the Miss Barrier Line contest, named after the line that separates the West Bank from an Israeli neighborhood of Jerusalem. Israel is reinforcing the line with a concrete barrier, setting off harsh Palestinian protests.

But the Palestinian girls, citing threats, slowly backed out over the past months, leaving only one.

Hours before the pageant, however, Israeli organizer Azi Nagar asked the girl, Dina Mukhreiz, to stay home after her family received threats on their lives from fellow Palestinians.

"I prefer to have a happy, pretty girl than a frightened beauty queen, not to mention a dead one," Nagar said, pulling a picture of Mukhreiz out of his wallet. He did not say who made the threats, but during more than three years of bloody Palestinian-Israeli violence, Palestinian militants have often tried to prevent joint projects.

The contest was held in the neighborhood of Gilo, an area Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed as part of Jerusalem. Palestinians oppose settlements built on the lands taken by Israel.

Organizers invited girls from Bethlehem and Gilo to participate with the hope of fostering understanding between them. The neighborhoods were a key flashpoint early in the Israeli-Palestinian fighting that started in late 2000. Shooting between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers across the rocky valley separating the sides peaked in late 2001.

Now, Israel is building a barrier between the communities to separate Israel from the West Bank in an effort to keep Palestinian suicide bombers out of the country.

Despite the lack of Palestinian contestants, at least six men from Bethlehem came to watch the contest and said they would encourage girls from the town to participate in 2005's pageant. Nagar, a businessman living in Gilo, said he is determined to try again next year.

Hila Peer, 17, and one of the Israeli participants, said she learned about Palestinians during the preparations for the pageant, which included fittings and visits to a swimming pool to get to know each other.

"The fact that Dina is not coming shows that the situation is so difficult that even something like this that is meant to bring peace can't happen," Peer said. "This shows there is no trust."