BETHLEHEM (BP)–Israel would consider using a military option to remove terrorists and hostages from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem if negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority fail to resolve the standoff crisis there, CNSNews.com reported an Israeli army spokesman saying April 26 in Bethlehem.
Some 200 armed Palestinians have been holed up for more than three weeks in one of Christianity’s holiest sites, built over the grotto where many believe that Jesus was born.
As many as 30 Palestinian youths and about 35 nuns and priests are also inside the compound, and Israel says they are being held against their will.
Speaking to reporters at the Star Hotel in Bethlehem, army spokesman Capt. Joel Leyden said negotiations are continuing around the clock.
“We have negotiations, which are ongoing 24 hours a day,” Leyden said. “We are making every attempt to get people out of this church as safely in the most orderly fashion we can.”
Formal negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials began earlier in the week to try to end the standoff.
Israel has demanded that the wanted terrorists inside the church — estimates range from four to 30 — either give themselves up for trial in Israel or go into lifelong exile from Israel and PA areas.
The PA has rejected that demand but there has been some apparent movement in the talks. Nine Palestinians youths were set free April 25 and the bodies of two Palestinians were removed from the compound.
Israel allowed PA negotiator Salah Ta’amri to travel to Ramallah April 26 to meet with PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, who remains holed up in his office compound surrounded by Israeli tanks. Earlier, Arafat reportedly told the gunmen in the church not to surrender.
“We have the greatest respect for the church,” Leyden told reporters who were huddled around him in the lobby of the hotel.
“We have no desire whatsoever to inflict any damage on the church and we’re doing our very, very best … to find a peaceful solution to getting the hostages out of the church and getting the terrorists out of the church,” he said.
“Now if we can’t find a peaceful solution in the very near future then there will be a military option,” he added.
Leyden declined to say what kind of a military operation might be attempted but said it would “exclude harming any civilians.” He also refused to say if the army had any deadline for how long it would give the negotiations to work before taking other action but said that Israel had “all the time in the world.”
Israel has come under strong criticism by the press for not allowing journalists into Manger Square where the church is located. But Leyden argued that it is a closed military zone for strategic reasons.
“We have a closed military zone because we don’t want you broadcasting our military maneuvers, our operations to the enemy. It’s that simple,” he said. By doing so, journalists would be “jeopardizing” the lives of soldiers and civilians as well, he added.
The Star Hotel, which sits on a side street some 200 meters from Manger Square, has apparently been commandeered by the army. Soldiers were seen arriving with their equipment and duffle bags. Nearby entrances to Manger Square were blocked with coils of razor wire.
The streets of Bethlehem were deserted April 26 as the city was under Israeli military curfew for the fifth straight day. Stores and homes were shuttered during the morning and only an occasional soul was seen on the streets.
The curfew was to be lifted for several hours during the afternoon so residents can stock up on food and other necessities.
“Let’s keep things in perspective here,” Leyden said. “We have one of Christianity’s most holy places, this church here in Bethlehem, which has been attacked, captured and people are being held hostage there.
“As Israelis, as human beings, as people that respect other religions, this is something we cannot and will not tolerate,” he said.
“What gets us upset is when a group of terrorists hijacks, takes over a sacred place, such as the church, and actually spits at Christianity and that hurts us,” he added.
Critics have argued that the people in the church are not actually being held hostage but Leyden said that because of the dynamics of the community no one inside would actually dare to admit to being held against his will.
Leyden argued that Israel could bomb the church but instead had put the lives of its soldiers at risk in order to prevent civilian casualties.
Israel entered Bethlehem — and several other PA-controlled cities on the West Bank — nearly four weeks ago as part of its Operation Defensive Shield, following a series of suicide bomb attacks. According to officials, the aim of the military incursion was to arrest wanted terrorists, collect illegal weapons and destroy bomb-making factories.
Stahl is the Jerusalem bureau chief for CNSNews.com. Used by permission.