NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Accompanied by a priest one by one, 26 Palestinians exited Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity April 30.
It marked the second small step forward in negotiations to end the month-long Manger Square standoff between Israeli troops and Palestinians holed up in the ancient church believed by many Christians as Jesus’ birthplace.
Nine Palestinian young men exited the church April 25, carrying with them coffins containing the bodies of two Palestinians killed in gunfire exchanges with Israeli troops.
The Jerusalem Post reported May 1 that 82 individuals, including several clerics, have been able to exit the church in various ways since an estimated 250 armed Palestinians took control of the church in early April — when Israeli troops and tanks began securing Bethlehem as part of the nationwide “Operation Defensive Shield” against the onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombers.
Remaining in the church with the Palestinian gunmen are an estimated 30 to 40 clerics, including several nuns, who have been called hostages at least by Israeli officials and the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, while representatives of some religious groups have depicted the clerics as remaining in the church to maintain its sanctity.
According to news reports, Israeli and Palestinian representatives are continuing negotiations on the key issue — the number of Palestinians inside the church, perhaps 30, specifically wanted on terrorism charges and who would face trial in Israel or permanent deportation. Palestinian Authority officials, meanwhile, are negotiating for the gunmen in the church to be relocated to the Gaza Strip in the presence of a third party.
Negotiations to end the Manger Square began the week of April 21.
The 26 Palestinians who left the church April 30 were selected by the gunmen in the church who, in various reports, have voiced a resolve to remain in the church indefinitely.
Several Palestinian gunmen have been killed by Israeli sharpshooters during the standoff, while a number of fighters on both sides have been wounded in gun battles.
The Israeli military has permitted small deliveries of food, but, according to The New York Times April 30, the Palestinians and clerics inside the church were surviving on what was described as “a broth of boiled grass.”
A 20-year-old Palestinian who escaped from the church April 21, Taher Manasra, said at the time that about 50 Palestinian young men and children were being held in the church’s cellar at gunpoint by a member of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s presidential guard as they sat or slept throughout the day or used a bathroom. They were permitted fresh air for short periods one at a time, Manasra said, according to the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz. Manasra, an unemployed resident of a refugee camp near Bethlehem, said he believed they had been guarded for their own protection.
“Our food was a pretzel apiece [per day],” Manasra said. “Once, they also gave us a hot meal of rice.”
The day after the Palestinians took shelter in the church, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem charged that gunmen with using “the landmark Church of the Nativity and other religious sites in Bethlehem as a safe haven” and using “innocent civilians as human shields.”
The ICEJ statement condemned “the deliberate and provocative exploitation by armed Palestinian elements” and 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 ICEJ’s Hedding said 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.”
“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,” Hedding said.
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.”