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TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Paul McCartney arrived in Israel on Wednesday for an historic concert, flashing a V-sign for peace and making a surprise West Bank visit to the delight of Palestinian fans.
"It is me," McCartney told photographers at a Tel Aviv hotel hours after touching down for one of the biggest rock concerts in the Jewish state that shunned the Beatles 43 years ago as a "corruptive influence."
"It is the real me, I tell you," McCartney said. "Shalom."
McCartney later traveled to the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where he lit candles at the Church of the Nativity and wished for peace and hope for the Palestinian people.
"All we need is peace in the region and a two-state solution," McCartney told reporters and crowds of tourists outside the shrine revered as the site of Jesus's birth.
"I am bringing a message of peace and I think that's what the region needs. It's my own small way I can bring my message."
The former Beatles star's concert, planned for Thursday, has been billed "Friendship First," part of a series that has taken McCartney, 66, to cities he has never visited before.
Organizers said he would play more than 30 songs including Beatles hits to a crowd of at least 40,000 from a stage pitched on a lawn in a sprawling Tel Aviv park.
The enthusiastic welcome for McCartney contrasts with Israel's brusque rejection in 1965 of a request by the Beatles to perform while at the height of their career.
The snub was long attributed to Golda Meir, the late grandmotherly Israeli prime minister, who was said to have denounced the Beatles as a "corruptive influence."
Israeli culture historian Alon Gal said documents show it was a defunct culture panel, not Meir, that made the decision after youthful crowds were unruly at an appearance in the early '60s by rock star Cliff Richard.
Beatlemania was as rife in Israel as anywhere in the West in the '60s despite the official ban, and McCartney's visit seems to have rekindled a fresh bout of hysteria with radio stations playing Beatles tunes almost non-stop in the past few days.
Israel's ambassador to Britain formally apologized in January for the cold shoulder shown to the Beatles.
He invited McCartney and the other surviving band member, Richard Starkey, whose stage name was Ringo Starr, to perform in Israel.
Palestinians had urged McCartney to cancel his trip over Israel's occupation of the West Bank since 1967, and media reports in Britain said an Islamist militant had threatened the ex-Beatle.
"I was approached by different groups and political bodies who asked me not to come here. I refused. I do what I think, and I have many friends who support Israel," McCartney was quoted as saying in an interview with the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
A witness said McCartney made a brief visit on Wednesday to the British consulate office in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian sector Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. Israeli organizers had no immediate comment.
Editing by Paul Casciato