BETHLEHEM, West Bank - A deal to end the 35-day standoff at the Church of the Nativity apparently has been struck, but Palestinian officials were trying early today to persuade the militants inside to accept the agreement.
Under the broad framework of a deal that became public Sunday, a handful of the militants would be deported to Italy, and a larger group would be jailed in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. But the fate of the deal could hinge on the militants' decision.
A stumbling block had been how many people would be deported. Israel had insisted on sending 13 to Italy after seeing a detailed list of who was inside for the first time Sunday. The Palestinians had agreed to send six. But the Israelis apparently won out.
For the first time, two Palestinian officials walked into the church about 5:30 a.m., and people inside said they were being briefed on the details decided upon during the marathon negotiations sessions.
Jihad Yousef Halil Ja'ara, 31, one of the gunmen holed up inside, told Al-Jazeera television this morning that 13 people were being deported for three years to Italy.
"This is a surprise for the people inside the church," he said by cellular telephone. "We knew that six would go, but not 13. We will be leaving in a few hours, and not even be allowed to see our families."
Officials said the 13 would be driven by Palestinians to the Israeli airport outside of Tel Aviv and flown aboard a British military plane to Egypt, then Italy. Six are members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian leader Yassser Arafat's Fatah faction; four are Palestinian security officers from the militant Hamas group.
No details about the 26 going to Gaza were immediately available, though officials had said they would be put in a Palestinian jail overseen by foreign observers and tried by the Palestinian Authority.
The apparent breakthrough comes after days of contentious negotiations in which each side continually claimed a resolution was just hours away. Earlier yesterday, Italy had raised concerns about the Vatican and CIA proposals.
Italy's deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini, told reporters that his government has neither received a formal request from Israel nor discussed the issue. "As far as I know, the Italian government hasn't given its go-ahead to welcome Palestinians accused of terrorism," he said. U.S. officials privately said yesterday that Fini's concerns do not present a major stumbling block.
Israeli and Palestinian officials, with the CIA station chief from Tel Aviv and Vatican emissaries acting as intermediaries, had met into the night for a second consecutive day to hammer out the final details and the complicated logistics of the transfer.
"We want to resolve this crisis fast and safely for everybody," said Israeli Army Col. Olivier Rafowicz, a military spokesman. "We expect it to end soon. It could be tomorrow. It could be the day after tomorrow. It could be today."
The siege at one of Christianity's holiest shrines, which marks what some Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, began April 4 when a group of about 30 armed Palestinians shot their way inside to escape the Israeli army, which has surrounded the stone church complex with soldiers and tanks.
People inside the church, including one of the accused gunmen, complained yesterday that they are frustrated at not being consulted about the negotiations. Most of their information is coming from reporters.
"We have no idea what is happening," said Ibrahim Abayat, commander of Bethlehem's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the city's leading militiaman, before the final deal was apparently struck. He tops the list of those Israel wants deported.
Speaking by cellular phone, Abayat, 29, said the mood was desperate inside the church.
Some have said the church is their final stand in their battle against Israel. Striking a deal to be deported, they said, is akin to surrendering.
"I would rather die a martyr," Abayat said. "Having fought for the land, I don't want to leave it." But, he said, he understood that he might have to consent to the deal to end the siege. Anything, he said, is better than standing trial in Israel.
Just before dawn, the first sign that the siege was about over came when Palestinian officials Zibbi Arafat and Farouq Amin walked through the small door of the church.
As of 7 a.m., nobody had left, but officials on both sides were reporting that a deal had been struck. Arafat and Amin were trying to finalize the details with the gunmen and collect their weapons.
More than 120 people are left inside, including priests, nuns, police and civilians. Israeli snipers have shot and killed seven Palestinians, either in outside courtyards or through church windows. About 60 people have come out since the siege began.
Numerous gunbattles have taken place between the two sides during the siege, but soldiers have refrained from storming the church. The Israelis say the gunmen are holding people hostage; the priests and others say they have been free to leave.
The Israelis were hoping for an end by the time Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with President Bush in Washington this afternoon. Israelis blamed Arafat for dragging out the talks to embarrass Sharon. Palestinian officials said Israel keeps adding to its demands.
Other issues include what will become of the guns, the sequence of the release and whether the Israeli army will pull back before they emerge.