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Palestinians Stand Defiant in Bethlehem

Mideast: About 100 fighters remain at Nativity church, and 80 flee another sanctuary. Israel seizes Nablus.

April 04, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The siege of the shrines of Bethlehem entered its second day Wednesday with about 100 Palestinian fighters holed up in the Church of the Nativity, defying Israeli soldiers positioned outside the 4th century church built on the site revered as Jesus' birthplace.

Intermittent gunfights continued in this shattered holy city. Palestinian and Israeli officials said that five more Palestinians were killed but that the death toll was preliminary because some bodies hadn't been recovered. That would bring the total to an estimated 14 killed here since the Israeli military swept into town early Tuesday.

There was no shooting at the Church of the Nativity, however. Late Wednesday, an Israeli military commander approached the front doors of the church and began telephone negotiations with a priest inside acting as a mediator, according to a spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces. Negotiations were continuing this morning without a resolution.

As the Bethlehem standoff continued Wednesday, Israel widened its reoccupation of the West Bank, taking control of Nablus, the sixth major Palestinian population center seized and the largest city in the West Bank. Alarmed by the escalating violence, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in Washington that he is considering holding talks with Israeli and Arab leaders during a trip to Europe next week.

In Bethlehem, seven Greek Orthodox clergymen have remained voluntarily in the besieged church on Manger Square, until recently a thriving tourist attraction. The clerics were providing medical care to nine wounded Palestinians, one of them severely injured, and sharing meager supplies of coffee, tea and biscuits with the fighters, a priest said in a telephone interview.

To the extent that anyone sleeps, the fighters, mostly members of the Palestinian Authority security forces, bunk in the basilica and the priests in their adjoining living quarters, he said.

"They are agitated and nervous, but they respect us very much," said the 33-year-old Canadian priest, who identified himself as Father Parthenius, the chant of prayers resounding in the background. "The Christians among them are joining us in prayer. There is a lot of shooting outside. We heard two tank shells fired today."

But the priest said that Israeli soldiers refrained from firing at the church and that the Palestinians inside weren't shooting either. Another standoff at a house of worship ended earlier Wednesday when about 80 Palestinian fighters fled out the back door of the Santa Maria church, leaving behind the corpse of a uniformed Palestinian policeman with a bullet wound to the head, officials said.

The Palestinian governor of Bethlehem said the gunmen managed to sneak out and escape into the historic city center, a labyrinth of winding streets and narrow alleys. An Israeli military spokeswoman said troops didn't engage the fleeing Palestinians in a firefight to ensure the safety of a priest and nuns who had been inside with them since Tuesday.

"We don't want any trouble around a church," the spokeswoman said.

Information was imprecise, but Palestinians were reported to have been holed up in two other churches. They abandoned one, the Lutheran church, sometime Wednesday afternoon, according to Bethlehem Gov. Mohammed Madani.

The Israelis say the Palestinians are exploiting the churches by taking refuge in them.

Father Parthenius said the priests in the Church of the Nativity don't regard themselves as hostages. Rather, they fulfilled a sacred tradition of providing sanctuary, he explained.

"We'll never ask them to leave," the cleric said of the fighters. "To make war is easy. In order to make peace, we must all pray together."

The standoff at one of Christianity's most hallowed sites dominated world attention, spurring public comments and diplomatic contacts involving the Vatican, Israel and other governments.

Clerics here were still coming to grips with the unthinkable: Men of war have taken over places of peace. Nonetheless, several priests said they were less concerned about the fate of the church buildings than about the long-suffering people of Bethlehem.

"The dignity of human beings is more important than the historical center," said the Rev. Maroun Lahham, director of a Catholic seminary here. "These are men we are dealing with, not stones."

And the harsh human costs of the battle in Bethlehem were on display just a few blocks from Manger Square.

Two men bled to death Wednesday in the Fawagrah neighborhood, residents said, because ambulances couldn't reach them through streets filled with sniper fire, destroyed cars and water gushing from broken pipes. As a wide-eyed little girl watched, Abdel Kader's agony ended Wednesday afternoon on the kitchen floor of a family whose members were strangers to him.

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