250 Under Siege in Church of Nativity

Dead and wounded Palestinians lay where they fell in Bethlehem yesterday as the IDF continued a siege of some 250 armed Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity, which the Christian world regards as the birthplace of Jesus and Israeli troops are under orders not to invade with force.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Dead and wounded Palestinians lay where they fell in Bethlehem yesterday as the IDF continued a siege of some 250 armed Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity, which the Christian world regards as the birthplace of Jesus and Israeli troops are under orders not to invade with force.

The IDF completed its grip on the city over the holiday, except for Manger Square, outside the church, and the church itself. Last night, the IDF was negotiating with the 250 besieged Palestinians inside the church, trying to persuade them to surrender.

The Vatican sharply criticized Israel for imposing "unjust conditions and humiliations" on the Palestinians and also denounced acts of terrorism against the Jewish state. In a strongly-worded statement, the Vatican said it had called in the Israeli and U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See to discuss the crisis in the Middle East. Although it condemned acts of terrorism, in apparent reference to a recent wave of Palestinian suicide attacks, the statement included a list of criticisms of Israel. It said Pope John Paul II "rejects unjust conditions and humiliations imposed on the Palestinian people, as well as the reprisals and revenge attacks which do nothing but feed the sense of frustration and hatred."

The IDF moved into Bethlehem on Monday, with reserve infantry, armored corps and engineering troops entering the city from several directions. So far, the IDF has recorded only one casualty, 22-year-old Master Sergeant Ofir Roth, killed by sniper fire on Monday.

But on the Palestinian side there have been more casualties, and due to the curfew imposed on the town, bodies remained where they died, with no burials taking place.

In the house of the Abda family, the corpse of Samiya Abda lay next to that of her adult son, Khalid. Their faces appeared to have been partially blown off, Reuters reported. "The woman and her son until now are still in their house, where the other children are living," said Mohammed Samhan, a Palestinian Red Crescent official in Bethlehem. "They were shot yesterday morning with a tank shell by the Israelis who have prevented us from retrieving their bodies," he said. "There are many wounded as well, in churches and all over the city."

An Israeli army spokeswoman said she was checking specific claims about the ability of Palestinian ambulances to move in Bethlehem, but added that in general the army had "no interest" in obstructing the work of medical teams.

"We are trying to move them. We are waiting for the green light," Veronica Sommaro of the International Committee of the Red Cross said of Bethlehem casualties.

As the troops rolled in, Palestinians sheltered in their homes, pulling shutters tight across doorways and peeking cautiously from their windows. "It's madness," said 70-year-old Rasmia Mohammed. "We hear fighting all through the night. We have no water to make bread, and the bakeries are closed. We are eating beans and soup."

Wary Israeli soldiers took up positions next to tanks and armored vehicles tucked into the winding alleys and narrow roads of the old city center. Residents said troops stormed the municipality building, detaining journalists inside. They also fired in the general direction of a group of journalists walking through the town, but no one was hit. Roads were like obstacle courses, littered with the debris of battle. Buildings were scorched from fierce firefights. Facades of shops and apartments were shattered and ragged, shards of glass clinging uneasily to window frames.

A Franciscan monk inside the Church of the Nativity said the church did not have enough supplies to care for some 250 Palestinian militants taking refuge there. "We cannot care for 250 people. We have a convent for 30 to 40 people and our supplies can last us for two weeks," a German monk inside the church said. "The Israeli defense minister has assured the apostolic nuncio that the basilica will not be attacked. I hope that will remain the situation," he said.

In nearby Beit Jala, a convoy of Israeli army vehicles and a police vehicle roared uphill past a hospital, where Palestinian medics stood in the emergency entrance, unable to venture out. A curfew imposed on the town was lifted for a few hours yesterday to allow residents to hunt for food.

Palestinian sources said 13 Palestinians have been killed so far in Bethlehem. The IDF says it believes only eight people were killed, most of them armed members of the Al Aqsa Brigades. Palestinian sources said that among the dead are three top Al Aqsa Brigade leaders - Ahmed al Mugrabi, Awad Awad, and Yihiye Da'amshe, considered the top bomb maker in the organization. But there has been no intelligence confirmation for that.

Three Israeli soldiers were wounded on Tuesday during fighting, in which Palestinians used RPG rockets against Israeli forces. One soldier were wounded by acid thrown in his face, and the other two were wounded by bullets. Dozens more were wounded, and more than 20 Palestinians have so far been arrested.

On Tuesday night, armed Palestinians found shelter in churches in the Manger Square area, mostly in the Church of Nativity. One group of armed men broke into the Santa Maria Church, in the northern part of Manger Square. But they left that church yesterday, with some surrendering to the army. But nearly 250, including members of Fatah and various Palestinian security organizations, took over the Church of the Nativity. Military sources said the group entered the church at gunpoint, encountering priests and nuns.

Among those holed up in the church, say military sources, are Kamal Hamayid, the Fatah leader in the Bethlehem area, and considered the "strong man" in the city.

The IDF is under strict orders not to fire at or near the church. The negotiations for the surrender are being conducted by a special team from the general staff, and military sources said the army would not break into the church by force, due to the international sensitivities at stake.

In his briefing to the forces, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz emphasized the need to refrain from using force near the churches. Military source said that "it's doubtful the affair will end as easily as it did in the Bitounia siege" - where armed Palestinians under siege in the headquarters of the Preventive Security forces gave themselves up to the IDF. "This could take a long time," said the military source.