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Dec 24, 2010


Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

On April 2, 2002 armed Palestinian Arab terrorists forced their way into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of Christianity's most sacred sites, the birthplace of Christ. In the midst of over 200 nuns and priests, they sought refuge from Operation Defensive Shield, the Israel Defense Forces action against suicide bombing activity originating from West Bank locations. For 38 days, until May 10, 2002, the world watched as the gunmen refused to surrender their positions inside the Church. Only Israeli restraint and respect for the Christian shrine prevented the Palestinian desecration from turning into its destruction.

Why was the IDF in Bethlehem at the time? In December, 1995, Israel had turned over control of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority, but the PA failed to quell terrorist activities. Quite the contrary; terrorism never stopped and after September 2000, increased dramatically with the al-Aqsa Intifada. In February and March, 2002, more than two dozen Israelis had died in five separate incidents of murder, bombings and gunfire within Israel and the territories, with over six dozen injured. In each case, the Fatah in Bethlehem claimed responsibility for the deaths.

In the first days of April 2002, an IDF Paratroop Brigade moved into the area to seek out and destroy explosives, arms factories and related terrorist infrastructure. A heavily armed band of terrorist gunmen, trying to evade the IDF, moved into Manger Square but found IDF troops and tanks ready for them. That triggered a planned and premediated Palestinian Arab operation to take over the Church of the Nativity.

IDF forces began negotiations to end the takeover. The Palestinian Arabs inside the church included many who were known terrorists and Israel demanded that they surrender. They were members of Palestinian groups on the U.S. Department of State Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, including several Hamas operatives who had killed innocent civilians. Also taking cover in the Church were Tanzim militia leaders from Yasir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) who were involved in recent suicide bombings, plus members of the Al Aqsa Brigade.

Israel identified the terrorist individuals by name and sought to take them into custody; the Palestinian Authority refused to transfer them into Israeli hands. Nor were representatives of other governments helpful in concluding the matter. An early agreement to end the standoff failed when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declined to accept the gunmen, saying that no one nation could be asked to take that responsibility, and the European Union needed to find an EU solution.

Israeli negotiating initiatives for humanitarian services during the siege were also rejected. Several efforts to remove injured persons and bodies of the dead were stymied by Palestinian Arab refusal to cooperate, and when International Red Cross representatives, recruited for the task by Israel, adamantly refused to enter the Church.

As IDF operations continued in the area, a nearby explosives laboratory was found and destroyed, and a large pipe bomb in an adjacent mosque was retrieved. Several Hamas and Tanzim operatives were arrested. Eventually some of the Palestinians inside begin surrendering, while occasional exchanges of gunfire occurred. Gradually, various church staff and trapped civilians were evacuated. One by one over time, 95 persons were released during the siege.

During the occupation of the Church of the Nativity, Yasir Arafat complained of the Israelis:

  • How could the world possibly be silent about this atrocious crime? ... What concerns me is what is happening at the Church of the Nativity. This is a crime that cannot be forgiven.

More objective observers, such as Ariel Cohen in the National Review, saw things more clearly:

  • Using priests and nuns as human shields in the most sacred location for Christianity is not just barbaric. It is a violation of the 1977 First Protocol to the Geneva Convention and is a war crime. Similar cases from the Balkan wars are heard today before the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Only brutal terrorists would desecrate religious shrines and hurt clergy ...

Under worldwide pressure not to damage or desecrate the Church of the Nativity, Israel insisted that the IDF would not attack. Palestinian Arabs played on fears of a bloodbath should Israel invade the Church, but throughout the siege, the IDF held to their promise that not a single Israeli soldier would enter Church premises. An IDF spokesman said:

  • IDF commanders have issued specific orders to protect the integrity and sanctity of all holy places in Bethlehem, just as we do in other areas.

A priest inside told the Associated Press that only in the early days he feared the Israelis would rush the building; he later relaxed when the Greek Orthodox patriarchy assured him the Israeli army had guaranteed it would not. While early reports alleged that the IDF had broken the front door, Marc Innaro, an Italian journalist who witnessed the events, said the Palestinians had shot their way in:

  • They shot at the doors ... with machine-guns and they opened the doors and rushed inside. We were in a monastery, which is very close, 25 metres near to the Nativity Church.

On May 1, a fire was seen from the distance, but upon investigation turned out to be another location, in an adjacent building. Palestinian Arab "witnesses" claimed that flares fired by Israeli soldiers sparked the blaze, but Israeli government spokesman Dore Gold responded that the fire was intentionally set by Palestinian Arab fighters holed up inside.

Finally, on May 10, after 38 days, the crisis concluded with a negotiated plan. Thirteen "senior terrorists" departed for Cyprus by British aircraft, to be dispersed among various EU nations. Twenty-six more were transported to the Gaza Strip where they were to be put on trial for terrorism. But their arrival in Gaza was greeted with a celebration and they were treated as heroes. One hundred twenty-four other Palestinian Arabs inside the Church were set free.

After the Palestinians' departure, the IDF was invited inside by Church officials to look for explosives or booby traps. An IDF spokesman said that 40 "explosive devices" were found in the Church compound. The IDF reported that seven Palestinians and no Israelis died in the confrontation at the Church.

The Church was not seriously damaged, but cooking utensils, trash, and clothing were strewn around. The debris of the occupation, and the smells of the unsanitary conditions, lingered.

Subsequent to release of the terrorists into European exile, more than fifty Congressmen wrote to United States Attorney-General Ashcroft, demanding that extradition be sought for two of them. Tanzim members Ibrahim Mussa Abayat and Jihad Yusef Halil Ja'ara had murdered an American citizen in Israel before fleeing to the Church of the Nativity. Under US law, individuals who commit acts of terrorism against American nationals may be prosecuted for such acts in the United States, regardless of where the acts took place. Congress has prodded the Executive Branch for enforcement of the law.

1 comment:

Will said...

Hi Alex.
Read today that they(The terrorists) are wishing them (The Christians)a Merry Christmas.