BETHLEHEM (BP)–About 200 Palestinian fighters April 3 gunned their way into Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, The Jerusalem Post reported April 4.
The ancient church is built over the site held by tradition to be Jesus’ birthplace.
Other news sources estimated the number of Palestinian fighters in the church as ranging from 200 to 400. Also in the church are about 60 priests and nuns.
“Those Christians inside the church are now hostages,” an observer of global affairs predicted to Baptist Press April 4 on condition of anonymity. “The Palestinians will hold them until [Yasser] Arafat is allowed to leave his bunker” in Ramallah where Israeli troops have confined him to several rooms in his battered headquarters.
Israeli tanks and infantry have taken control of Bethlehem, but military spokesmen said troops in Manger Square have refrained from firing upon the Church of the Nativity or on other churches in Bethlehem entered by fighters affiliated with the militant wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s regime.
CNSNews.com reported that Israel issued a denial on April 4 that it had blown the door off of the Church of the Nativity but admitted that gun battles had been going on in Manger Square in front of the church. Some news agencies, including Reuters, earlier had quoted eyewitnesses as saying that Israel had blown the door off the church or a gate in a perimeter fence.
Israel is “not going to harm the church in any way,” Ra’anan Gissin, media adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told CNN. “We know very well how to protect those religious sites. It is Arafat and the Palestinian Authority that claim they are the protectors of the Christian sites there, who have misused and abused them for over a year.”
In its counteroffensive against Palestinian suicide bombers, Israeli troops have entered at least 10 cities formerly governed by the Arafat-led Palestinian Authority — Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, Beit Jala, Tulkarm, Kalkilya, Salfit, Beitunya and Idna.
Jenin is considered a breeding ground for many of the suicide bombers, while Nablus is considered a hotbed for militant Palestinians, The Post reported. Israeli troops also were searching the Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem for bomb-making sites, the paper added.
Concerning Arafat, The Jerusalem Post quoted Gissin as saying that the PA leader “won’t communicate [with the outside world] until … we see he is no longer a threat and not instigating terrorism.”
The Post reported that Palestinians had counted 18 dead April 3, most of them in Bethlehem, while a 29-year-old major in the Israeli reserves was killed as a brigade moved into Jenin. Among those killed in Bethlehem was a 45-year-old Palestinian Catholic who was walking from his home to the church, where he prayed each day and helped with the cleaning.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, about 60 priests and nuns were helping tend to 10 wounded Palestinian gunmen, and the Vatican was facilitating negotiations between Israel and the government, The Post reported.
The gunmen “were very determined, not nervous, tired also, but not willing at all to surrender,” Italian TV journalist Marc Innaro told the Associated Press after being evacuated from Bethlehem. Among the scenes taped by his crew were gunmen milling around a statue of the Virgin Mary in one of the church’s courtyards. Israel has declared Bethlehem a closed military zone and off-limits to journalists.
Gissin told the AP, “Because of our military operation, [the Palestinians] return to their old practice of trying to use and abuse churches and holy sites in Bethlehem as a refuge and as a place from which they can conduct their attacks against our forces.”
ASSIST News Service, meanwhile, noted concern for the Bethlehem Bible College, which has often been in the crossfire, with teachers and students reportedly trapped inside.