Determined to prevail in Bethlehem

In holy site standoff, Palestinians, Israelis can't attack or retreat

April 09, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - The standoff between Israeli troops poised outside the Church of the Nativity and the Palestinian gunmen taking refuge inside seems destined to become a symbol of each side's determination to prevail in their conflict, regardless of how long it takes.

The tactics used elsewhere in the West Bank will not work here, at the church built over the cave where some believe Jesus was born.

In the city of Nablus, about 100 Palestinian fighters surrendered yesterday after days of street-to-street fighting. In Jenin, the Israeli army used helicopter gunships to bomb a refugee camp. But here, an all-out attack is unacceptable to Israeli commanders in Manger Square, and surrender is unacceptable to the Palestinian gunmen inside the church.

The stone church was designed to withstand an attack, its only entrance a four-foot-high door intended to hold off enemies on horseback.

Israelis and Palestinians each had their own account of gunfire that occurred yesterday. The Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired first and threw grenades from the church compound, and that troops fired back. Palestinians denied firing first.

However the clash began, a Palestinian policeman, 23-year-old Khaled Syam, was shot and killed by the Israelis when he tried to extinguish a fire in a courtyard.

Bethlehem Gov. Muhamad Maadani, who was inside the church, said the gunmen are convinced that Israeli soldiers will attack. "There are preparations being made by the fighters," he said by telephone.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pledged that nothing short of surrender will end the standoff. "Until then, the army will remain in their place and prevent them from evading justice," he told Israel's parliament.

The seige, which today enters its eighth day, has drawn attention from the Vatican and generated television images of religious sites at the center of an urban battlefield.

As many as 60 priests remain with more than 100 gunmen inside the church. The Israeli army calls them hostages; the priests say they are offering sanctuary to prevent the gunmen from being killed.

Vatican responds

When word spread yesterday that Israeli soldiers had fired on the church, scuffing the outside walls and damaging a 6th-century mosaic inside, the Vatican reacted immediately, before Israel said its troops were returning fire from inside the church.

"If the news coming from Bethlehem in these last few hours is confirmed," the Vatican said in a statement, "it would be a development that would aggravate an already dramatic situation."

Vatican officials warned both sides that they considered the safety of holy sites an "absolute priority."

Israel has received more criticism for stationing soldiers in Manger Square than have the Palestinian gunmen for forcing their way into the church. The church is considered the second-holiest in Christendom, second only to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe the crucified Jesus was buried and rose from the dead.

The gunmen are hiding in an adjoining monastery as well as in the church, sleeping in the pews or on thin mattresses on the stone floor. Several of the wounded are huddled in the grotto.

It is all but impossible to verify the divergent accounts of what is happening there. Israel's army has barred reporters from Manger Square. From a few hundred yards away, only the church's roof is visible.

Soldiers remain out of sight in surrounding buildings, their tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbling along nearby streets.

Several priests, most of them elderly, have left the church. But leaving is unthinkable to the rest. Asked by telephone why he stayed, the Rev. Amjad Sabara sounded stunned. He paused and shouted to people in the room, "Does anyone want to go?" as if no one had asked the question before.

"Why do we have to leave?" said Sabara, the Franciscan pastor of St. Catherine's, the sanctuary adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. "We are the custodians of this holy place. We believe something is going to happen to this church."

The Vatican has suggested the gunmen lay down their arms in exchange for safe passage to the Gaza Strip. Sharon has rejected that arrangement, saying the gunmen included several militants on Israel's "wanted" list and senior officials of the Palestinian Authority.

Food running low

Maadani, Bethlehem's governor, who said he went to the church to resolve the standoff and is now trapped, portrayed a dire scene. He said the compound's electricity was cut off, with food supplies running low. The priests share with the gunmen small portions of pasta, rice and tea.

Maadani said he refused to talk with a solider who used a bullhorn to communicate through the church's wooden door, demanding that everyone surrender.

"This morning, he said that if you do not get out in one hour, there will be an operation by us and we will storm the church," Maadani said. "I told him that I cannot negotiate, that he must address his demands to one address, our leader Yasser Arafat."

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