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3 Palestinian officials among those occupying Bethlehem church

JERUSALEM (BP)–Three senior Palestinian Authority officials are among an estimated 250 Palestinian gunmen in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in a continuing standoff with Israeli troops, according to The Jerusalem Post April 7.

The Palestinian gunmen continue to prevent 50 or more priests and nuns from leaving the ancient Manger Square church regarded as the birthplace of Jesus by various sectors of Christendom.

The gunmen permitted four Franciscan priests to exit the church April 5, according to The Post, noting that the clergy told Israeli officials they had been held against their will, but not at gunpoint, since the gunmen seized the church April 3.

Giacomom Bini, minister-general of the Franciscans, told The Post that “40 brothers and more than 200 armed Palestinians” are in the church. “The brothers shared their food, but it is running out and we have appealed to be permitted to leave the church and get supplies,” Bini said.

“We need people to lay down their arms,” he said, “but those in the church will not lay down their arms if they see those outside still have weapons.”

An Israeli colonel in charge of negotiations with the gunmen, Marcel Aviv, told The Post and other reporters, “Our aim is to secure release of all those inside the church without the use of weapons and without harming a holy site. We have the patience, the tools and the necessary equipment to bring a halt to the incident.”

Aviv told reporters the gunmen inside the church are armed with bombs, light weapons and sniper rifles. Since Israeli troops and tanks entered Bethlehem as part of its region-wide sweep against the onslaught of suicide bombers, 10 Palestinians in the city have been killed, among them Church of the Nativity bell-ringer Samir Saliman, The Post reported.

Palestinian Authority officials inside the church, according to The Post, are Bethlehem Governor Muhammad al-Madani; Abdullah Daoud, head of the city’s intelligence, whose command, according to Aviv, encompasses PA security forces who have shot at Israeli troops; and Anthony Salman, chairman of the city’s rescue organization.

Aviv said he expects the three officials “to cooperate with us to rescue those being held hostage,” The Post reported.

CNSNews.com reported April 8 that more gunfire was exchanged during the day between the holed-up Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops surrounding the church.

An Israeli army spokesperson said troops had fired only on a compound adjoining the church in response to gunfire and grenades directed at them, CNSNews.com reported. Two Israeli border policemen reportedly were wounded and Israeli troops fired two stun grenades into the church, she said. Palestinians said one policeman was killed as he tried to put out a fire, which broke out in the compound. It was unclear how the fire had started, CNSNews.com reported.

The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem has charged that the Palestinian gunmen are using “the landmark Church of the Nativity and other religious sites in Bethlehem as a safe haven” and using “innocent civilians as human shields,” according to an April 4 report by ASSIST News Service.

The statement by the Jerusalem-based interdenominational Christian organization condemning “the deliberate and provocative exploitation by armed Palestinian elements” additionally quoted the embassy’s executive director, Malcolm Hedding, as saying, “As a voice for millions of Christians worldwide, we cannot accept this transgression on the sanctity of the Church of the Nativity and we thoroughly denounce it.”

The Palestinian gunmen’s entry into the church “is a premeditated offence by militant outlaws who know it is a place central to our faith and thus would provide them unquestioned refuge,” Hedding said. “While the current conflict is a difficult and complex one, everyone must recognize that these Palestinian gunmen took the battle inside this church by design.”

The ICEJ statement accused the Palestinian Liberation Organization of having carried out “a similar tactic” during the war in Lebanon where it said “the PLO systematically defiled and destroyed churches and other Christian properties.”

Also in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israeli troops would stay in Palestinian areas until they have completed their mission of apprehending terrorists, destroying terrorist laboratories and seizing weapons, CNSNews.com reported April 8.

Sharon’s hour-long televised address to the Israeli parliament followed an April 4 call by President Bush to end the Israeli military thrust into PA areas.

Bush has sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region, and in a weekend news conference, the president repeated his call for Israel to withdraw without delay from PA areas, CNSNews.com reported. In a telephone conversation over the weekend, Sharon told Bush that he would make every effort to accelerate what Israel is calling “Operation Defensive Shield,” aware that the United States wants to see the action end quickly, according to a statement from Sharon’s office reported by CNSNews.com.

The Israeli prime minister, in his speech, said the military operation was aimed at taking actions that Palestinian leaders should have taken themselves, CNSNews.com reported. Nevertheless, he said, Israel’s war is against the terrorists and not the Palestinian population.

Sharon said Israel is interested in peace with its neighbors but that could only happen if Palestinian leaders “assume responsibility to prevent the use of its territory to murder its neighbors.”

“We have no war against you and we do not want to control you,” Sharon said, speaking directly to the Palestinian people. “We want to live with you, side by side, with dignity and honor. [But] you must take your fate in your hands…. You must reject the forces that have brought upon you catastrophe.”

Sharon also called on moderate Arab leaders to come to a summit to discuss Middle East peace, indicating that the Palestinian Authority is no longer viable. Israel has declared PA Chairman Yasser Arafat an “enemy.” Israeli officials in early April said they discovered documents in his Ramallah headquarters that implicates the Palestinian leader as the director of terror attacks.

Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat reacted angrily to Sharon’s speech, calling it “disastrous,” CNSNews.com reported.

“The Palestinian Authority is here and will stay here because it takes its legitimacy from our people,” Erekat said in a telephone interview.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: STANDOFF IN BETHLEHEM.