THE BETHLEHEM SIEGE
"The idea was to enter the church in order to create international pressure on Israel...We knew beforehand that there was two years' worth of food for 50 monks. Oil, beans, rice, olives. Good bathrooms and the largest wells in old Bethlehem. You didn't need electricity because there were candles. In the yard they planted vegetables. Everything was there." (Senior Tanzim commander, Abdullah Abu-Hadid, Yediot Ahronot on May 24 as reported in Daily Alert, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, May 30, 2002 )
On April 2, 2002, as Israel initiated its Defensive Shield operation to combat the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure in Bethlehem, "a number of terrorists took over St. Mary's Church grounds and...held the priest and a number of nuns there against their will. The terrorists used the Church as a firing position, from which they shot at IDF soldiers in the area. The soldiers did not return fire toward the church when fired upon. [emphasis added] An IDF force, under the command of the Bethlehem area regional commander, entered the Church grounds today without battle, in coordination with its leaders, and evacuated the priest and nuns." (IDF Spokesperson, April 3, 2002)
That same day, "More than 100 Palestinian gunmen..., [including] soldiers and policemen, entered the Church of the Nativity on Tuesday, as Israeli troops swept into Bethlehem in an attempt to quell violence by Palestinian suicide bombers and militias." (Serge Schmemann et al, "Israeli Military Sends Tanks Into Largest West Bank City," New York Times, April 3, 2002)
The actual number of terrorists was between 150 and 180, among them prominent members of the Fatah Tanzim.
As the New York Times put it, "Palestinian gunmen have frequently used the area around the church as a refuge, with the expectation that Israel would try to avoid fighting near the shrine." ("Sharon Proposes Arafat's Exile While Israeli Forces Shell His Compound," New York Times, April 2, 2002) [emphasis added]
And in fact this was the case. The commander of the Israeli forces in the area asserted that the IDF would not break into the church itself and would not harm this site holy to Christianity. Israel also deployed more mature and more reserved reserve-duty soldiers in this sensitive situation that militarily called for more-agile, standing-army soldiers. (Amos Harel, "IDF Declares: We Won't Forcefully Enter The Church Of The Nativity Holy To Christians," Haaretz (Hebrew Edition), April 5, 2002)
The Palestinians, on the other hand, did not treat it the same way. Not only did they take their weapons with them into the Church of the Nativity and fire, on occasion, from the church, but "the entrance to the church is also heavily booby-trapped." (Baruch Kra et al, "IDF Maintains Cautious Approach In Bethlehem," Haaretz, April 10, 2002
On April 7, "one of the few priests evacuated from the church told Israeli television yesterday that gunmen had shot their way in, and that the priests, monks and nuns were essentially hostages...The priest declined to call the clergy 'hostages,' but repeatedly said in fluent English: 'We have absolutely no choice. They have guns, we do not.'" (Paul Martin, "Arafat Tells Gunmen To Refuse Deal," The Washington Times, April 8, 2002 )
Christians clearly saw the takeover as a violation of the sanctity of the church. In an interview with CWNews, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican's Undersecretary of State and the top foreign-policy official, asserted that "The Palestinians have entered into bilateral agreements [with the Holy See] in which they undertake to maintain and respect the status quo regarding the Christian holy places and the rights of Christian communities. To explain the gravity of the current situation, let me begin with the fact that the occupation of the holy places by armed men is a violation of a long tradition of law that dates back to the Ottoman era. Never before have they been occupied-for such a lengthy time-by armed men." ("Top Vatican Official Speaks On Bethlehem Crisis," CWNews, April 10, 2002,
On April 14, he reiterated his position in an interview on Vatican Radio. ("Vatican Proposes Independent Force To Halt Mideast Violence," Worldwide Faith News website, http://www.wfn.org/2002/04/msg00201.html, 15 April, 2002)
On April 24, the Jerusalem Post reported on the damage that the PA forces were causing:
Three Armenian monks, who had been held hostage by the Palestinian gunmen inside the Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, managed to flee the church area via a side gate yesterday morning. They immediately thanked the soldiers for rescuing them.
They told army officers the gunmen had stolen gold and other property, including crucifixes and prayer books, and had caused damage...
One of the monks, Narkiss Korasian, later told reporters: "They stole everything, they opened the doors one by one and stole everything... they stole our prayer books and four crosses... they didn't leave anything. Thank you for your help, we will never forget it."
Israeli officials said the monks said the gunmen had also begun beating and attacking clergymen. (Margot Dudkevitch, "Gunmen Stole Gold, Crucifixes, Escaped Monks Report," The Jerusalem Post, April, 24 2002)
When the siege finally ended, the PA soldiers left the church in terrible condition:
The Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity [had] seized church stockpiles of food and "ate like greedy monsters" until the food ran out, while more than 150 civilians went hungry. They also guzzled beer, wine and Johnnie Walker scotch that they found in priests' quarters, undeterred by the Islamic ban on drinking alcohol. The indulgence lasted for about two weeks into the 39-day siege, when the food and drink ran out, according to an account by four Greek Orthodox priests who were trapped inside for the entire ordeal...
"They should be ashamed of themselves. They acted like animals, like greedy monsters. Come, I will show you more," said one priest, who declined to give his name. He gestured toward empty bottles of beer and hundreds of cigarette butts strewn on the floor. The priest then took the reporters to see computers taken apart and a television set dismantled for use as a hiding place for weapons...
"You can see what repayment we got for 'hosting' these so-called guests," said Archbishop Ironius, as he showed reporters the main reception hall of the Greek Orthodox Monastery...
The Orthodox priests and a number of civilians have said the gunmen created a regime of fear.
Even in the Roman Catholic areas of the complex there was evidence of disregard for religious (items?) Catholic priests said that some Bibles were torn up for toilet paper, and many valuable sacramental objects were removed. "Palestinians took candelabra, icons and anything that looked like gold," said a Franciscan, the Rev. Nicholas Marquez from Mexico.
( "'Greedy Monsters' Ruled Church," The Washington Times, May 15, 2002)
A problem that arose during the siege again shows Christian fear of Muslim domination. Two Palestinian gunmen in the church were killed, and the PA wanted to bury them in the basilica. For Christians, this was a potential "absolute disaster."
"With two Muslim bodies inside the Church of the Nativity, Christianity could be facing an absolute disaster in Bethlehem," said Canon Andrew White, the special representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Middle East. "It would be catastrophic if two Muslim martyrs were buried in the church. It could lead to a situation like that in Nazareth [DR: as described above]," he said. (Ori Nir et al, "Arafat's Terror In Church: Armed PA Security Forces Keeping 50 Youths Hostage In Church Of The Nativity Cellar," Haaretz, April 22, 2002 )
Only after intensive mediation efforts, were plans to bury the bodies inside abandoned.
Exiled Palestinian militants ran two-year reign of terror
By Sayed Anwar
BETHLEHEM, West Bank -
Residents of this biblical city are expressing relief at the exile to Cyprus last week of 13 hard-core Palestinian militants, who they said had imposed a two-year reign of terror that included rape, extortion and executions.
The 13 sent to Cyprus, as well as 26 others sent to the Gaza Strip, had taken shelter in the Church of the Nativity, triggering a 39-day siege that ended Friday.
Palestinians who live near the church described the group as a criminal gang that preyed especially on Palestinian Christians, demanding "protection money" from the main businesses, which make and sell religious artifacts.
According to Bethlehem residents, one of the group's top leaders, Jihad Ja'ara, 29, traveled around town with an M-16 rifle, terrorizing the community.
"Finally the Christians can breathe freely," said Helen, 50, a Christian mother of four. "We are so delighted that these criminals who have intimidated us for such a long time are now going away."
Others feared new gunmen will capitalize on the group's disappearance and the pullout of Israeli troops.
"Will new gangs come in?" asked Samer, 33, from the Christian suburb of Beit Jala in Bethlehem. "The gunmen will start taking revenge on the weak, desperate people."
Residents also said that Mr. Ja'ara and another top leader, Ibrahim Abayat, took nine Muslims whom they suspected of collaborating with Israel into an apartment near Manger Square and fatally shot them.
The executions took place shortly before the April 2 gunbattle between Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters that sent more than 200 Palestinians fleeing into the church, where they remained for 39 days.
Abayat, in a phone interview from inside the church while the siege was under way, said he was personally responsible for the killings.
He said there was no need for a trial because "it was a well-known fact that these people were linked to Israel."
Abayat and Mr. Ja'ara are now at a seaside hotel in Cyprus, waiting to be moved to an as-yet-unnamed European country, where many expect them to be set free.
The gang has said it is part of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that has claimed responsibility for several recent suicide bombings in Israel.
Zuhair Hamdan, founder of the Movement for Coexistence in Jerusalem, was sitting on a chair outside his corner shop near Bethlehem in November when an official Palestinian Authority car drew up with a squeal of brakes.
From the back window a gunman, who Mr. Hamdan says was a member of
the gang, emptied 12 bullets from a M-16 rifle, hitting him five times in the abdomen, legs and neck.
Mr. Hamdan was so close to death in the hospital that he now jokes, "They took my body to the cemetery but the cemetery rejected me."
Mr. Hamdan said seven members of the gang were involved. Five of the seven assailants have since died, at least one of them fatally shot by Israel during the recent church siege, he said.
"The remaining two gunmen are being kicked out of Bethlehem, but wherever they end up, someone will get to them and make them pay for all the awful things they've done," he said.
The gang apparently used its ready access to guns and close ties with Mr. Arafat's Palestinian security forces to extort money, run guns, smuggle drugs and even demand that young women separate from their husbands.
After one woman was reportedly raped by a gang member, the perpetrator was put in jail, but only briefly. His comrades reportedly forced the jailers to let him go.
The gang's hostility toward Christians extended to a 17-year-old altar boy fatally shot during an Israeli incursion in October.
A small stone monument the family erected in Johnny Talgieh's memory on the spot in Manger Square where he died was kicked and spat on by gang members, then toppled with ropes and cables and left smashed on the ground.
"They did not want to recognize that a Christian could be considered a [martyr]," said a family member, "even though having that statue there would have given the Palestinian cause a huge propaganda boost.
"They hate us Christians more than they love Palestine."
Even during the recent siege, gang members who had not fled into the church continued to demand their regular 10 shekels (about $2) from each taxi driver going in and out of a parking lot close to the compound.
One who refused, saying he had no cash, was reportedly beaten up last month.
The gang apparently operated under the full protection of Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization and Tanzim, its military wing.
During the 19-month uprising, they have often fired into the nearby Israeli suburb of Gilo from church grounds and the homes of Palestinian Christians in Beit Jala.
When Palestinian gunmen would show up at the door, Christian families often had no choice but to let their homes be used as sniper posts and face the consequences of Israeli retaliation.
Copyright _ 2002 News World Communications, Inc.
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