JERUSALEM (BP)–One by one, Palestinian militants and civilians filed out of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on May 10, ending the 39-day standoff at the church that was built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, CNSNews.com reported.
But some questions linger, as it is still unclear where 13 of the militants expelled from the church will end up. Cyprus has agreed to take them temporarily.
By mid-morning, 123 militants and civilians had left the church through the main door into Manger Square, under a deal worked out by the European Union, with U.S intervention. Some waved to bystanders. Two were carried out on stretchers. But ten international activists and a photographer remained inside.
The standoff began on April 2, when some 200 armed Palestinians — many of them wanted by Israel for involvement in terror attacks — stormed the church compound and hid there as Israeli troops entered the city, intending to arrest wanted militants and destroy terrorist infrastructure there.
The incursion was part of a wider military operation in the West Bank, which followed a month of deadly terror attacks: 130 Israelis were killed and hundreds more were wounded.
The first 13 Palestinians to leave the church were those described by Israel as “serious terrorists.” Questions about how to deal with those 13 had delayed, for two days, a deal to end the standoff. The 13 are expected to be deported to a third country, but so far, no country has been willing to take them.
Twenty-six additional Palestinians wanted by Israel will be taken to the Gaza Strip, while another 84 civilians will be set free.
According to an army spokesperson, all those leaving the church would be taken to a nearby military base to have their identities checked.
Accompanied by two clergymen, the first militant to leave the church was stopped several times at the metal detector and had to remove his coat. He then proceeded through a barricaded corridor and was escorted to a waiting Israeli bus by Israeli soldiers.
Weapons left behind in the church by the Palestinians will be turned over to the U.S.
Ten U.S. and European activists from the International Solidarity Movement, who stormed the church two weeks ago to join the militants, reportedly have refused to leave the church. Israeli sources were quoted as saying that they probably would be deported.
A photographer from a major American newspaper was swept into the church with the activists when they ran inside. She was reportedly unable to leave.
Israel said the activists had broken the law by entering a closed military zone. Although church priests reportedly have asked them to leave, the activists said they want assurances that Israel won’t arrest them when they do walk out.
The 13 militants that Israel wants to expel include nine members of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, linked to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction. Of those nine, two are members of the PA security forces, three are senior leaders of Hamas, and one man is linked to two recent suicide bombings in Jerusalem.
They are to board a British plane, which will take them to Cyprus. From there they are expected to be relocated to several European countries and possibly Canada, through a deal worked out between the U.S. and the European Union. The final destinations have not yet been decided upon, however.
“Cyprus has agreed to take the 13 people as a temporary measure,” Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Cassoulides told reporters in the Cypriot capital, Nicosia on Thursday.
Stefano DiCara, the deputy head of the European Union Embassy in Tel Aviv, said that the 15 EU members were still discussing which countries would accept the 13 exiles.
According to media reports, Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, Austria and Luxembourg are among those that might accept a few of the Palestinians.
The issue is “extremely sensitive,” DiCara said by telephone on Friday.
“This is exceptional. These people are not detainees, in that they have committed no crimes in those countries,” DiCara said.
Nevertheless, he said, there is a sense that their “freedom of movement” should be limited. “These are people Israel has accused of committing terrorist [attacks].”
Brig.-General Eival Giladi, head of strategic planning, noted that although the negotiations had been long and drawn out, the crisis has finally ended without any Israeli soldier entering the church and without any of the 39 wanted terrorists going free.
Giladi said in an interview on CNN that those who were being sent to Gaza were being forced to leave the terrorist infrastructure, their terror cells and their weapons behind and had made a personal commitment, guaranteed by the PA, not to engage in further terror attacks.
He also said that Israeli troops would leave Bethlehem “soon after” they were finished evacuating the church.
Earlier, Giladi was quoted as saying that there had been no agreement about the duration of the militants’ exile abroad. PA officials had suggested that they be allowed to return after Israel and the Palestinians sign a peace agreement, he said. Israel will not prevent their families from joining them abroad, he added.
Arafat came under heavy criticism from his own Fatah faction as well as Hamas for agreeing to the deportation of Palestinians.
In the past, any deportation of Palestinians from this area came as a result of unilateral Israeli action.
Stahl is the Jerusalem bureau chief with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.