End to standoff at Bethlehem church near despite dispute, negotiators say

Israel, Palestinians differ on how many militants would be exiled to Italy

May 07, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Negotiators trying to end the standoff at the besieged Church of the Nativity said a resolution was imminent yesterday despite a dispute over the details of a plan to deport some of the Palestinians in the church.

Under the broad framework of a deal that became public Sunday, a handful of militants would be sent into exile in Italy, and a larger group would be jailed in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.

Not only are the numbers in dispute - Israel wants to deport 13, and the Palestinians say they will agree to six - but Italian officials are raising concerns about the deal, which originated with the Vatican.

Italy's deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini, told reporters yesterday 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, 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.

The tentative agreement would send a group of Israel's most wanted militants to Italy and a second group to a Palestinian prison in the Gaza Strip, possibly overseen by American and British observers. The others holed up in the church would go free. Negotiators are struggling to resolve a variety of issues, from how long the deportations would last to whether the men would be allowed to see their families before being put on a plane.

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 hap pening." said Ibrahim Abayat, commander of Bethlehem's Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the city's leading militiaman. He tops the list of those Israel wants deported.

Speaking by cellular phone, Abayat, 29, said the mood is desperate inside the church, mainly because both sides continually announce that an agreement is hours away, only to have the deadlines pass without resolution or explanation.

Some inside 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.

More than 120 people are left inside the church, including priests, nuns, police and assorted 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.

"From the beginning, we have respected the sanctity of this holiest of places." Rafowicz said. "We are not against priests or the Christians. We hope that the other side does not use this crisis as a political means to achieve political goals."

The Israelis hope a final agreement can be reached by the time Prime Minister Ariel Sharon meets with President Bush in Washington this afternoon. Israelis blamed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for dragging out the talks to embarrass Sharon in front of Bush. Palestinian officials said Israel keeps adding to its demands, such as first agreeing to have six sent to Israel, then raising the number to 13 at the last minute.

The deal being hammered out is similar to that which ended the siege of Arafat's compound in Ramallah, with six people wanted by Israel sent to a jail in Jericho overseen by American and British security officials.

But getting more than 30 armed militants to put down their guns and come out of the church is a far more complicated task. With no police or leader inside, as there were in Ramallah, each armed man will have to decide whether to go along with the deal.

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.

Palestinians say Israel wants to interrogate each of the deportees for 30 minutes, something the Palestinians refuse to allow. Each of the men leaving for either Italy or Gaza, they say, must remain in the hands of a third party, such as the United States, and never be in the custody of Israel. The Palestinians are also worried that Israel will invoke a recent court ruling that allows officials to permanently exile people who have been deported. The men in the church want assurances that they can return to the West Bank in three or four years.

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