Church of Nativity Deportee Held for Major Theft in Belgium

LONDON - One of the 13 Palestinians deported from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in May 2002 was arrested Tuesday in Belgium on suspicion of participating in a number of robberies in which more than $250,000 were stolen. Khalil Mohammed Abdullah al-Nawara received asylum in Belgium following the siege on the church.

The Belgian daily, Le Soir, reported that large security forces had conducted searches in 44 locations in the Brussels area, arresting seven individuals, including al-Nawara, on suspicion of using explosives to rob post offices of more than 215,000 euro.

Al-Nawara, a former resident of Bethlehem and a member of the Tanzim militia, was involved in the past in incidents of shooting at Israeli cars on the Tunnel Road, as well as the murder of Israeli citizens. His asylum in Belgium included financial assistance and housing. He was initially under guard by Belgian security forces, but this was later lifted after he was deemed not to be a threat to public security.

The affair has stirred unrest and embarrassment in Belgium. At first, government spokesman refused to comment on the matter; but yesterday, the office of the Belgian prime minister authorized publication of the details. Official government spokesmen told Haaretz that Interior Minister Patrick Dewael will be required today to respond to questions on the matter in the Belgian parliament.

The transfer of the deportees to Europe was accompanied by concerns that some were likely to turn to criminal or terrorist activities in their host countries. It was reported some six months ago that the security forces of Britain and Ireland were looking into information that one of the two Palestinians deported to Dublin was in contact with The Real IRA. Irish sources noted yesterday that at this stage, the allegations had yet to be confirmed.