Deal to end Bethlehem church siege on hold

Palestinian militants agree to deportation plan, but Italy objects to host role

May 08, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - A group of 13 gunmen huddled in a dark corner of the Church of the Nativity yesterday morning to answer this question: Should they remain in the church or agree to Israel's demand that they be deported?

With little discussion, each of the 13 raised a hand and accepted the idea of ending their 36-day standoff with the Israeli army and going into exile for at least three years - if a country can be found to take them.

"I feel like a tree that is being uprooted from its land," said Rami Kamel, a 22-year-old member of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, who described events from inside the church by telephone. "We are in a very difficult moment right now. We are being forced to leave our best friends. It is very difficult to leave your people, your family and your country."

The problem now for Israel is to persuade a country to act as host.

Israeli and Palestinian officials had agreed that the 13 militants wanted by Israel would be sent to Italy. Twenty-six others would be transferred to the Gaza Strip, where they would be jailed under the supervision of U.S. and British guards.

In mid-afternoon, the army was ready for the transfer to begin. Soldiers removed a crane equipped with cameras and guns that could be fired by remote control. A metal detector was put outside the church door where the wanted men would emerge, and U.S. vehicles were parked near Manger Square to take the 13 militants to an airport, where a British plane was ready.

"We have reached an agreement to end the siege," Col. Olivier Rafowicz said outside the church.

But Italy then objected.

Italian officials said they had not been asked through normal diplomatic channels to take the men. The arrangement was suggested by the Vatican and its details worked out by the CIA, according to Israeli and U.S. sources in Israel.

"The issue of the acceptance in Italy of Palestinian citizens has never been posed," the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, "and up to the point that we have reached, it cannot be proposed."

Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino said in Rome that the issue "about hosting Palestinian terrorists to facilitate the process will be studied."

"There are still things to clarify: for example, in what capacity would they come to Italy," Martino said.

Those comments prompted a frantic search for another haven. Israel asked Egypt to temporarily take the men until a solution was found so the siege could end. But Egypt, along with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, refused.

With the standoff unresolved - and even the militants inside the church saying they had had enough - internal Palestinian opposition to the deal grew. Militant groups objected, as expected, but a leading member of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party also pleaded with the militants to stand their ground.

"I'm begging you, in the name of all prisoners, all martyrs, not to accept to be deported," Hussein al-Sheik told Al-Jazeera satellite television in an unusual public criticism of an agreement approved by Arafat.

Palestinian officials said yesterday that they might ask that all the wanted Palestinians in the church be sent to Gaza.

But Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser said the deal that Arafat had agreed to was necessary.

"The price is heavy," he said. "I feel pity for the people who will have to live in another country. This deal defies all our agreements with Israel. But it was done to preserve the sanctity of the church. The church deserves this."

Relatives of some of the gunmen ignored the Israeli army's curfew and approached a barbed-wire barrier in hopes of reaching the church.

Sara Mousa Kamis, 50, tried to see her 21-year-old nephew, Anan Mohammed Kamis, a member of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who was on the list for deportation. "This is unjust for us and for him," she said. "This isn't acceptable. Arafat must find another solution."

Four of the 13 men on the deportation list are members of the Abayat clan, militants held responsible for firing at Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood built on West Bank land annexed by Israel.

Ibrahim Abayat, 29, commander of Bethlehem's Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, is the main spokesman for the gunmen inside the church and is at the top of Israel's wanted list. The extended Abayat family is one of the ruling militia groups in Bethlehem; it is widely feared but also revered for taking a leading role in fighting and attacking the Israelis.

Ibrahim Abayat's mother, Fatma, said sending her son into exile would be unfair. "If there are any human rights, I should be able to see him before he goes," she said while sitting outside her home. "It is my right to see him."

If she could talk to her son, she said, she would tell him that "he has never done anything wrong."

"I would tell him that he is guarding the Church of the Nativity," she said.

Israeli officials accuse Ibrahim Abayat of fatally shooting several Israelis.

The Israeli army killed the head of the Abayat clan, Hussein, in 2000. The army killed a son, Atef, in October with a car bomb. Ibrahim Abayat took on a larger role after Atef's death; he had pulled his brother from the wreckage of his car.

Kamel, the militant who spoke by phone from inside the church, said Palestinian leaders should never have agreed to deport their own people, but he understood the political rationale.

"They have accused me of killing Israelis," he said. "I feel disappointed. We are not criminals. We are fighting for our land. We are defending the holy sites of Muslims and Christians. The whole world is watching us and is doing nothing.

"I hope that this deal will be good for our people. We have accepted this only because of the situation in Bethlehem and in the church, and to end the suffering of our own people."

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