Deal is near to end crisis in Bethlehem

Palestinians would leave the Church of the Nativity

Deportation or exile discussed

Israel could pull out army before Sharon sees Bush

May 06, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Israeli and Palestinian officials neared agreement early today for resolving the monthlong standoff at the Church of the Nativity, an agreement that would call for deporting some of the Palestinian militants inside to Italy and others to the Gaza Strip.

The two sides continued to argue over how many gunmen would be exiled, how many would be sent to Gaza, and whether they would be freed or jailed there under American and British guard.

In addition to Israelis and Palestinians, the negotiations involved officials from the Vatican, the United States and Europe. If an agreement is reached today, Israeli troops and tanks could leave Bethlehem and complete the army's withdrawal from all West Bank cities by the time Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets tomorrow with President Bush in Washington.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were said to be considering the exile of six to 14 militants, sending 20 to 30 others to Gaza and freeing everyone else in the church.

Israeli officials said the idea of Italy as a place of exile was proposed by Cardinal Robert Etchegaray, a Vatican envoy who met yesterday with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. After weeks of stalled talks, the Palestinians and Israel appointed new negotiators.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat delegated authority to one of his security chiefs and Mohammed Rashid, who has met in the past with Sharon's son Omri. Sharon replaced army negotiators with officials from the Shin Bet, the internal security police.

The standoff began April 2 when more than 100 Palestinians fled into the church built on the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born, to escape an Israeli offensive in the West Bank. Israeli forces surrounded the church and demanded that the gunmen surrender. Israel later gave them a choice of surrender or exile.

More than 120 people, including priests, nuns and Palestinian police, remained inside the church compound yesterday despite shortages of food. About 60 people have left or surrendered during the past month; seven others were shot and killed by Israeli snipers.

A gunman still inside insisted yesterday that spirits remain high.

"It is very bad in here," Mohamed Zawahera, one of the wanted men, said in a brief telephone interview. "But people are in a good mood. If we have to, we will wait inside the church until the last minute of our lives. No one wants to be deported."

Negotiations have been painfully slow. On Friday, Israel offered to deliver food to priests in the church in exchange for a list of names of everyone inside. The priests refused. On Saturday, a diplomat representing the European Union entered the church and a Franciscan priest handed him a sealed envelope containing the names of 123 people that was turned over to U.S. officials. The Israelis delivered food yesterday afternoon.

There were other signs of progress. Two Israeli tanks withdrew from Manger Square, and bulldozers cleared away crumpled cars and metal barricades. Later, a member of the militant Islamic group Hamas walked out of the church and surrendered.

"I'm optimistic," said Father Ibrahim Faltas, the caretaker of the church, after leading Mass at a chapel at Bethlehem University, a few blocks from Manger Square. He has been inside the Church of the Nativity since the siege began but has left several times to celebrate Mass.

Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers searched neighborhoods that are home to members of the Abayat clan, which has been accused of organizing attacks against Israel. Ibrahim Abayat, local leader of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, remains inside the church.

Away from Manger Square, the city was quiet. Only children and the elderly dared venture out past the patrols of Israeli soldiers. The Orthodox Easter was marked by the ringing of church bells.

Father Yacoub Yousef Issak, 72, offered a Saturday night Mass for 13 people at a Syrian Orthodox Church near Manger Square. Members of the congregation lighted candles with a torch carried from Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Israeli army allowed the flame and its carrier to pass through military checkpoints, but Father Issak was grim.

"What can I say to the world when Bethlehem is in a prison?" he asked after the service. "People are unable to go to church and fulfill their spiritual obligations. I blame the whole world; they did nothing to stop it."

While most city residents were still confined to their homes, Sameh Murad, 60, director of the Bethlehem Academy of Music, ventured out for the first time in more than a month.

Unable to reach his school to teach, he has spent his time reading. Murad has a piano and an organ in his home but refuses to play them.

"The Israelis might hear it and think that I'm happy."

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