The armed Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem were keeping some 50 children and young men virtual prisoners in the church's cellar, a 20-year-old Palestinian who escaped related yesterday.
The youths were permitted to go out only for short periods, one at a time, and were suffering from hunger and thirst, as well as fear and boredom, Taher Manasra said. "Our food was a pretzel apiece [per day]," he said. "Once, they also gave us a hot meal of rice."
Manasra said he had slipped out through an aperture in the church wall yesterday to gather edible plants for food. He was promptly shot in the leg - by an Israeli sniper, he assumes - and following negotiations via Red Cross intermediaries, he was taken for treatment to Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem.
Five other Palestinian youths also left the church yesterday afternoon with the assistance of the Red Cross mediators, after IDF soldiers spied them standing at the church entrance waving a white flag. They said that priests inside the church had helped them to escape.
The five, who are not on the IDF's wanted list themselves, told their interrogators that many of the wanted men in the church would also like to give themselves up, but are under pressure not to do so both from the leaders of the group and from senior Palestinian Authority officials.
Manasra, an unemployed resident of the nearby Deheisheh refugee camp, said he had been shopping for groceries in the Bethlehem market about 15 days ago when he suddenly heard a series of explosions and saw people fleeing into the church. He therefore did the same. Inside, he said, members of the Palestinian Authority's security services had sent all the younger civilians into the cellar.
"They treated us strictly, and we even had ask for permission to go to the bathroom," he said. "We were allowed to be in the bathroom for only five minutes." He said a member of Force 17, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's presidential guard, had stood watch over the youngsters with a rifle and had ensured that they remained seated in their places all day. He said that the people in the cellar had spent most of their time sleeping.
Manasra said he did not know why they had been kept confined to the cellar, but assumed it had been either for their own protection or to keep them from getting in the fighters' way. He estimated that in addition to the 50 youths, some 200 armed men were inside the church. He claimed that even among the fighters, morale was very low. He said he believed that they were also short of food, even though he and his comrades had smelled things cooking in the rooms occupied by the gunmen.
Despite the growing tensions between the gunmen and the civilians and among the wanted men themselves, IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz said yesterday that the standoff at the church could last for as long as another two weeks.
Meanwhile, several hundred Israeli Arabs, led by the heads of the Christian churches in Israel, demonstrated yesterday at the military roadblock north of Bethlehem against the IDF siege of the Church of the Nativity. The demonstration passed quietly and dispersed after about an hour.
A catastrophe for Christianity
"With two Muslim bodies inside the Church of the Nativity, Christianity could be facing an absolute disaster in Bethlehem," said Cannon Andrew White, the special representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Middle East. "It would be catastrophic if two Muslim martyrs were buried in the church. It could lead to a situation like that in Nazareth," he said.
White said the issue of removing the two bodies from the church was of primary concern to religious representatives of all three parties involved in the stalemate around the church. However, he said that after intensive mediation efforts, plans to temporarily bury the bodies inside the basilica had been abandoned, but that no progress had been made in formulating a plan to bring the bodies outside the church.
"We are concerned with two primary issues here," said White. "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," he said. "Holy places have always been a place of refuge, but not for those bringing in weapons."