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No country steps forward to accept 13 Palestinians in Bethlehem deal

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A plan to deport 13 Palestinians from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity stalled May 7 lacking a country to receive the men Israel has alleged to be terrorists.

Negotiators had planned on Italy receiving the Palestinians, and Egypt also had been mentioned, but an Associated Press report May 7 recounted that neither country had had a part in negotiating such a plan.

Italy, in a statement carried by the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’aretz, said, “The possibility of receiving Palestinian citizens in Italy has never been raised [officially] and therefore at the current state of affairs it cannot be considered.”

Thus, the standoff at the church regarded as the birthplace of Jesus in various Christian traditions ended its 36th day without a final breakthrough. Israeli troops and tanks have surrounded the 1,400-year-old church since an estimated 200-250 armed Palestinians entered the grounds in early April. Dire conditions inside the church continue, from a scarcity of food, which has been largely cut off by Israel, to numerous individuals who are sick.

According to news reports of a negotiated settlement, 13 Palestinians sought by the Israelis as alleged terrorists were to be deported to Italy, about 30 others would be sent to the Gaza Strip and the remaining Palestinians, estimated to have dwindled to less than 100, would be freed.

Intensive negotiations in the agreement involved the CIA, Vatican and European Union officials, the Associated Press reported.

Israel has “signed off on the deal,” Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying May 7, while Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat’s approval was signaled by a Palestinian source close to the negotiations, Ha’aretz reported.

However, an Israeli Defense Forces spokesman, Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, told reporters May 7, “The implementation [of the deal] is being delayed because there is no country willing to accept the terrorists.”

In addition to the Palestinians inside the church, about 25 priests and monks and several nuns have remained inside throughout the ordeal. Ten foreign peace activists, including four Americans, also managed to slip into the church May 2.

The Palestinians entered the church complex when Israeli forces moved into Bethlehem April 2 as part of the region-wide Operation Defensive Shield sweep against Palestinian suicide bombings. Some early news reports gave April 3 as the start of the standoff. Several Palestinians have been killed by Israeli sharpshooters or in gunfire exchanges with Israeli troops.

Tel Aviv’s Ha’aretz reported that Italy’s defense minister, Antonio Martino, said May 7 the plan to receive the 13 Palestinians would be studied “with maximum attention.” But, he said, Italy would not embrace “unilateral initiatives,” although it “believes in the peace process.”

Reuters reported that an Italian government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Italy would not accept the 13 Palestinians until it has received adequate information about the plan. The official said Italy had blocked air space to a British aircraft that would have departed from Cyprus with the Palestinians.

Another unnamed Italian government official told The Jerusalem Post, “Certain conditions must be met: the request must come from both parties, and then we must check what it is about: How many people? Who are they? For how long will they stay here?”

Militant Palestinian factions, meanwhile, challenged the agreement. Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi described the agreement as a “great disaster” in comments to the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV station. “The Israeli enemy is going to deny us our legitimacy, the legitimacy of our presence in Palestine, and the Palestinian Authority is about to implement this policy,” Rantisi was quoted as saying.

An unnamed Palestinian official recounted that Arafat, in comments to disgruntled members of the Fatah faction, said, “We have no deportation. It can be a six-month scholarship,” The New York Times reported May 7.

Bethlehem’s mayor, Hanna Nasser, told CNN, “The deal is over. … The price has been a very, very, very big price to pay on the Palestinian side.”