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Gun battle in Bethlehem leaves 1 dead, 2 wounded, church scarred

JERUSALEM (BP)–A pre-dawn gun battle between Israeli forces and Palestinians holed up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity April 8 left one Palestinian policeman dead, two Israeli policemen wounded and the ancient church on Manger Square marked by bullet holes.

A senior Israeli military official estimated that as of April 8 “200 Palestinian fugitives” were in the church along with 40 Franciscan monks and four nuns, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The standoff remains at an impasse, with Palestinian gunmen posted at broken-out windows of the church, which is surrounded by Israeli troops and tanks. The saga began April 3 when gunmen took control of the church as Israeli forces were securing the city as part of their region-wide sweep against the onslaught of suicide bombers. The church is regarded as the site of Jesus’ birthplace in various Christian traditions.

Israelis and Palestinians blamed each other for provoking the April 8 gunfight, according to various news reports.

The Jerusalem Post cited military sources in recounting that several Palestinian gunmen, when one of the church bells rang, shot two Israeli policemen who were lookouts atop a building near the church. In return fire, a Palestinian policeman was killed. The wounded policemen were evacuated under cover of a smoke grenade, which set fire to the building’s roof and was extinguished by Israeli troops and Palestinian firemen.

The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported that a Catholic priest, David Jaeger of the office of the Custodian of Catholic sites in the Holy Land, called the clash an Israeli provocation that violates “every canon of human decency. It shreds the credibility of the people who launched it.” The AP also cited a Catholic missionary news agency in Rome which quoted the Franciscans’ top representative in the Holy Land, Giovanni Battistelli, as saying, “Nobody opened fire from inside the basilica compound. It was an attack carried out by Israeli forces.”

A clergyman inside the church, Amjad Sabbara, told The Jerusalem Post that electricity to the church had been cut off and, “We have no water as the electric pump used to draw water from the well is not working. What supplies we have we also gave to the gunmen. We have no contact with them. Today a Palestinian policeman was killed and there are 10 Palestinian security officials who are wounded. They have their own medics to treat them.”

Sabbara, speaking by phone from inside the church, said, “We don’t know what to expect. … This place has always given out a message of peace to the world. Now we hope the world will bestow peace upon us.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to arrive in Israel Friday, April 12, in an attempt to break the escalating strife between Israelis and Palestinians – the most recent trauma being the April 9 ambush and killing of 13 Israeli soldiers by Palestinian fighters in the Jenin refugee camp. Israeli troops began their initiative March 29 after a string of suicide bombings including one that killed 26 Israelis at a Passover in Netanya. Israeli officials claim they have shut down 15 labs for making explosives during the military operation.

President Bush called for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas April 4, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded by maintaining that the campaign must continue until the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure is destroyed.

The Catholic officials’ statements blaming Israel for the April 8 gunfight ran concurrent with a commentary by a Jewish author, Yossi Klein Halevi, in the Los Angeles Times April 8 challenging a bias by mainline Christian churches against Israel.

“On the face of it, an anti-Israel stance among liberal Christian churches is understandable,” wrote Halevi, author of “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God With Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land” (Morrow, 2001). “The natural tendency of Jesus’ followers, after all, is to side with the underdog. And in this conflict, the underdog seems to be the Palestinians.

“We Israelis, though, are convinced that we’re the underdog,” Halevi wrote in his Times opinion piece. “That’s because Israel doesn’t only confront relatively powerless Palestinians but 22 Arab dictatorships, some armed with unconventional weapons.

“Nor do most Israelis believe anymore that the Palestinians’ goal is limited to a state in the West Bank and Gaza — which was Arafat’s for the asking. Instead, we’re convinced that this is a war against the existence of a Jewish state in any borders.

“Yet mainline churches continue to ignore Israeli fears and offer simplistic judgments.”

Halevi cited as an example “a recent uproar when Israeli soldiers fired upon Palestinian ambulances that refused to stop at checkpoints, with tragic results. Some church leaders accused the Jewish state of crimes against humanity, ignoring Israel’s insistence that Palestinian ambulances are sometimes used as a cover for transporting terrorists and weapons. Then, on March 27, Israeli soldiers stopped an ambulance on its way from Ramallah to Jerusalem and found 10 kilos of explosives hidden under a child lying on a stretcher. What did these Christian critics say then? Nothing; just silence.

“Like any country, Israel shouldn’t be immune from criticism,” Halevi acknowledged. “But in their obsessive attacks on Israel, some churches are inadvertently reawakening old anti-Semitic instincts that, since the Holocaust, much of Christianity has tried to uproot.

An example cited by Halevi: “… an Episcopalian church in Scotland, seeking to express solidarity with the Palestinians, has just unveiled a painting showing a crucified Jesus flanked by Roman and Israeli soldiers. Such an image deliberately plays to historical Christian accusations against Jews, holding them responsible for the death of Jesus.”

And, Halevi asked, “… where was the Christian outrage over the massacre of 26 Jews at a Passover Seder? It was a Seder, after all, that was Jesus’ last supper.

“Christian sympathy for Arafat — who told Al Jazeera TV that he hopes to die a martyr like the suicide bomber at the Passover massacre — is not only morally perverse but self-defeating,” Halevi wrote. “Even as Arafat presents himself as defender of the Holy Land’s Christians, he presides over the erosion of the Christian presence in the West Bank. Palestinian police routinely ignore extremist Muslim attacks on Christians. Meanwhile, police have jailed and tortured more than two dozen Palestinian Pentecostals who distributed New Testaments in West Bank villages. Scandalously, their fate has been ignored by church leaders, who reserve their outrage for Israel alone.”

In USA Today April 8, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, Bob Edgar, said, “We can’t blame one side or the other for the conflict, but in the case of the Church of the Nativity, the Israeli occupation of the city is what caused the situation.”

Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, meanwhile told the paper, “Everywhere I go, people are talking about this. No one lays the blame on anybody except the Palestinian Authority and Arafat.”