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Israelis & Palestinians negotiate end to standoff in Manger Square

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)-Negotiations fraught with distrust, peaceful exits to freedom, exchanges of gunfire and ever-worsening living conditions were simultaneously reported April 23-25 at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

Negotiations were continuing April 25 for the third consecutive day between Israeli and Palestinian representatives to seek a solution to the standoff between Israeli troops and tanks and Palestinian gunmen holed up inside the fourth-century Manger Square church regarded as Jesus’ birthplace by various Christian traditions.

A white cloth banner imploring, “Please help,” was held by an elderly monk in view of Israeli troops. The monk is one of 30-40 clerics, including several nuns, who have remained in the church complex since it was seized by an estimated 200-250 armed Palestinians April 3 or, by some accounts, April 2. Two other monks raised a sign imploring, “Please save us,” after getting to a roof in the church complex.

Nine young Palestinians and two monks peaceably left the church April 25, bringing with them the corpses of two Palestinian fighters, in the negotiations’ first fruits, the Associated Press reported.

The nine Palestinians’ exit added credence to an Israeli press briefing four days earlier and subsequent report in the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz that about 50 children and young men were among those being held by armed Palestinians inside the church.

A 20-year-old Palestinian who escaped from the church April 21, Taher Manasra, said 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 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.”

Five other Palestinian youths also escaped from the church April 21. Israeli sources told Ha’aretz that the youths said many of the armed Palestinian were ready to surrender but were under pressure not to do so by others in the group and by Palestinian leaders. Gunfire exchanged with Israeli troops have left several Palestinians dead.

Among other reports from the Bethlehem standoff:

— Three elderly Armenian monks who escaped from the compound April 23 told Israeli military officials that Palestinian gunmen had beaten some of the monks the evening of April 22 and had stolen crucifixes and other gold artifacts from the church, Ha’aretz reported April 24.

One of the monks, Narkiss Korasian, told reporters, “They stole everything, they opened the doors one by one and stole everything…. They stole our prayer books and four crosses…. They didn’t leave anything. Thank you for your help, we will never forget it.”

— Negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials to end the standoff were yielding “cautious optimism that the affair is closer to an end today than it was yesterday,” Israeli army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey said over Israel’s army radio April 25, the Associated Press reported. The most difficult issue, however, remains the fate of Palestinian gunmen inside the church wanted by Israeli authorities for alleged killings of Israelis.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Salah Tamari told CNN April 25, “I think it was positive and constructive and we feel that problems could be solved and gaps could be bridged. It’s not all wishful thinking, but it seems that once we listen to each other, not just to ourselves, then we address the issues more objectively and more constructively.”

An Israeli member of the negotiating team, Lt. Col. Oliver Rafowicz, told CNN, “In the land of God, the Holy Land, as you know, it is very dangerous to give a timetable or schedule. So, let’s be hopeful, but let’s keep this hope in rational terms. We have to be patient, and to wait, to wait safely. We have a lot of work to do together, and we’ll continue to keep these channels of communication open.”

On conditions inside the church, Tamari said the Palestinians there can hold on – “Sometimes, when we were in prison, we went on hunger strikes for 20 days” – while Rafowicz said the Palestinians “are just receiving a cookie for dinner, supper and lunch every day. They are beaten. They are afraid.”

An unnamed Israel security official said of April 23’s negotiations, “The Palestinians insist Israel allow the gunmen to be transferred directly to Gaza with an international escort; we insist they lay down their arms and those found to be involved in terrorist activities go on trial in Israel or be deported,” The Jerusalem Post reported. Another official told the paper, “Our position is that they must be expelled. Too many times, terrorists have been put in jail [by the Palestinians] and have come out again on the streets.”

According to The New York Times April 25, Israel is negotiating for Palestinian officials to provide a list of those inside the church from which it would identify those wanted for terrorism, an estimated 30 gunmen, so that others can peaceably leave the complex.

— A wounded Palestinian gunman inside the church, Jihad Jeara, told a USA Today reporter by phone, “We are prepared to continue with this until the end.” The 28-year-old, who is wanted by Israel for alleged weapons and terrorist crimes, said, “If we surrender, the Israelis will kills us. It’s better to die as a shaheed,” or martyr, the newspaper reported April 23.

— In a mobile phone conversation picked up from inside the church and reported by Reuters, a Palestinian official urged a gunman to quit shooting from the church and to allow some people leave. “We are not going to surrender,” the gunman said. “You have to tell the people to stand with us.” The Palestinian official responded, “You have got to have a conscience.”

— Israel’s High Court of Justice rejected April 24 a petition by the Franciscan order in Israel to reconnect the church’s water and electricity, The Jerusalem Post reported April 25. The petition was opposed in court by an attorney with the Israeli Defense Forces.

— A special Anglican envoy to the Middle East, Canon Andrew White, was quoted by Ha’aretz as saying April 22 that the situation in the church “is getting steadily worse. There is no food. … The sanitary conditions are terrible. Several people are sick and some are injured.” White told the Tel Aviv newspaper that the clerics were voluntarily remaining inside the church to help protect the sanctity of the shrine.

White also said, “We are concerned with two primary issues here. The first is the violation of the holy places. The second is humanitarian needs, even for those who have already violated the sacred places of Christianity by bringing weapons into the church.” White said churches “have always been a place of refuge, but not for those bringing in weapons.”

— Amjad Sabbara, identified by The Jerusalem Post as the parish priest for Bethlehem, told the paper April 19 that without electricity water cannot be pumped from the church’s well. “We don’t mind that there is no electricity during the day, but at night it is difficult. We fear sanitary conditions will worsen, as the place is not geared to deal with so many people over such a long period.” Israeli officials, meanwhile, have said they are permitting food to be delivered to the complex, but no specifics of the amounts have been reported.