JERUSALEM (BP)–“It’s a pity for any believer to see the birthplace of the Prince of Peace become a battlefield,” Michael Schneider, an Israeli reservist and a Messianic believer in Jesus, told the news service of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem April 10.
Schneider spoke by cell phone with the ICEJ news service from a guesthouse opposite the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square as rifles crackled in the background.
Palestinian gunmen took control of the ancient church April 3 as Israeli troops and tanks entered the Palestinian city as part of Israel’s region-wide sweep against the onslaught of suicide bombers. The Jerusalem Post estimated April 11 there were 250 armed Palestinians in the church along with 60 priests, monks and nuns.
Schneider, 34, who is from a German Jewish background and is employed with his family’s magazine company, left his wife and three children, ages 2, 5 and 7, behind March 29 after a knock at the door interrupted their Sabbath dinner. He was told he had one hour to get ready for reserve duty as one of 20,000 soldiers called up by the Israeli Defense Forces to carry out Operation Defensive Shield.
Schneider said he has been in Bethlehem since the IDF operation began. His unit led the way in during a two-day battle, which he said entailed gunfire from all directions, bombs sporadically planted on the road and in garbage cans and booby-trapped cars loaded with explosives.
“What I can see is the Square, a tank in front of the church and several TV cars,” Schneider told the ICEJ news service April 10. “But we shut the windows here because of the [Palestinian] snipers.”
Schneider and other reservists, generally older and more experienced officers than the 18- to 21-year-old recruits in the standing army, were sent into sensitive situations such as the one in Bethlehem knowing that the international religious community would be closely monitoring the IDF’s moves there. So far Bethlehem has the shortest casualty list of any major Palestinian towns involved in the current military operations: one Israeli soldier and 20 Palestinians have died.
Schneider said Israeli soldiers are under strict orders not to shoot at the Church of the Nativity. They can shoot at armed Palestinians who exit the church, but not at clerics who exit the church even if they are armed.
But the Palestinian gunmen inside have tested them, Schneider said, by sending out clerics with guns in their hands. The monks did not shoot, but were made to venture outside with the firearms before being called back in. The ploy, he said, was aimed at getting IDF troops to shoot at Christian clergy.
In the tensions of a war zone, however, tensions have ruptured into gunfights between Israeli troops and the gunmen, who mostly hail from the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah Tanzim terror militias. A monk was shot in the chest April 10 and seriously wounded in Bethlehem and was evacuated to a Jerusalem hospital. Isaeli military officials acknowledged April 11 that the monk had been hit by Israeli fire at an armed man standing next to him. The monk was standing outside the church to receive food and medication from the Israeli military, The Jerusalem Post reported.
And in a pre-dawn outburst April 9, a Palestinian policeman was killed and two Israeli policemen were wounded in an exchange.
The Bethlehem church encompasses a complex of monasteries inhabited by Franciscan, Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks, the ICEJ news release stated, noting that the clergy who live in the compound have been acting as liaisons between the fighters and the Israeli military.
Schneider said his unit is continuing to find bombs planted everywhere in Bethlehem, mostly in garbage cans and in bottles. “God has watched us and every bomb we found, we exploded on the street far away from us,” he said.
But the deaths of 15 Israeli reservists killed in one battle in Jenin on April 9 did not escape his notice. “It can happen also here,” he said.
Palestinian snipers are his biggest worry, Schneider said. “That’s what we are most afraid of. They shoot from all directions and you can’t see them. And you can do nothing.”
The Palestinian snipers, firing Kalashnikovs, are shooting from the church and other buildings in the complex. Otherwise, the fighting in Bethlehem has tapered off, although residents are still under a strict curfew and are allowed out for only three hours a day.
Despite conflicting reports from various sources over whether the clerics inside the Church of the Nativity are being held hostage, Schneider suggested that the gunmen are actually holding the whole town of Bethlehem hostage. “We are waiting now for them to come out of the church. Then we can withdraw,” he said. “We don’t know when it ends here. Kids, whole families are waiting at home for them. That makes it so much harder — the whole time you don’t know where this will end.”
The Vatican has said the clerics inside the church will not leave the site because of their traditional role as custodians. “But the question is whether they invited the Palestinian gunmen inside in the first place,” the ICEJ news release stated.
“In various media interviews … a couple of the local clerics inside [the church] were quoted as saying the gunmen had been welcomed into the church and were not holding them against their will. Many took their statements at face value, without understanding that one wrong word to the outside world could cost them dearly,” the ICEJ news release noted.
“When four clerics were finally released from the church over the weekend, Israeli authorities said they confirmed the Christians inside were not receptive to the armed Palestinian intrusion and did not willingly give them sanctuary. But as this news hit the wires, some church leaders here tried to backtrack once more, presumably to protect their colleagues inside,” the ICEJ report continued.
“In the last couple days, Christians inside the church have limited their comments to the press by simply noting their growing lack of water and supplies, saying they have had to share their stocks with the much larger batch of gunmen. The IDF says it has been transferring food to all of those inside, by placing it in the gate.”
A local Catholic spokesman issued a statement April 9 during a visit to Rome charging Israel with “an act of indescribable barbarity.” But the statement also noted it was made in reaction to unconfirmed reports “coming from Bethlehem in the last few hours.”
The reports in question likely had to do with Palestinian claims the IDF was shooting at the Church of the Nativity. But most media in Israel, however, were reporting that Palestinian militiamen inside the church had been firing and throwing grenades at IDF troops posted nearby.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav sent back a reply to Pope John Paul II reiterating that Israel would respect the church and other religious sites, while also charging that “the Palestinians have repeatedly desecrated the holiness of churches within their jurisdiction, abusing Holy Places as a base of operations.”
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to arrive in Israel April 11 in an effort to broker a pullout of Israeli troops from Palestinian areas, where clashes have claimed scores of Palestinian lives and numerous Israeli troops, and a commitment from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to end the wave of suicide bombings that have claimed scores of Israeli lives.