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THE MIDDLE EAST

Israelis Dig In for Standoff at Church

Bethlehem: Military commanders accuse Palestinian gunmen of holding nearly 80 clerics hostage, and vow to wait.

April 06, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HAR GILO, West Bank — Israeli commanders of the troops surrounding the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem said Friday that they will wait as long as it takes to capture more than 140 Palestinians holed up inside, while protecting the ancient compound and its clergy.

At a temporary Israeli military base atop Gilo hill, a biblical site overlooking the war-torn landscape of Bethlehem, the commanders gave new details about a standoff that entered its fourth day as four Franciscan monks left the church compound under unclear circumstances.

The besieged 4th century church, revered as being on the site where Jesus was born, is one of Christianity's most hallowed places and has become an international focal point in Israel's all-out offensive in the West Bank.

Almost 80 clerics are in the compound, along with dozens of wanted terrorists and Palestinian Authority officials, including Bethlehem's governor and intelligence chief, according to Col. Marcel Aviv, the chief of the military operation at the church. Four nuns are also inside, he said.

Aviv said the presence of Gov. Mohammed Madani shows that he is in cahoots with the gunmen. The Israeli commanders accused the Palestinians of holding the clergy hostage and making a mockery of a religious institution in hopes of provoking an Israeli attack.

"We know that these Palestinian Authority heads in Bethlehem are leading a gang of terrorists that took over the church," Aviv declared. "We can say that the PA heads have stormed the Church of the Nativity and are preventing others from leaving and themselves refuse to leave. It is a great disgrace to the Palestinian Authority."

The Israelis said their troops worked with Vatican diplomats, apparently by telephone, to help the Franciscan monks slip out of the compound Friday without the knowledge of the gunmen.

Two of the monks, who served in the adjacent St. Catherine's church, were elderly, and another was in a state of panic, according to military officers. Once outside, the monks told Israeli soldiers that the Palestinian gunmen had forced their way into the church Tuesday as Israeli tanks and troops rolled into town, Aviv said.

"The priests are under terrible pressure," Aviv said. "They are hostages."

Predictably, the Palestinian side gave an entirely different version. Palestinians have said they were granted sanctuary in the church by the clerics. Reached by telephone inside the compound Friday night, Madani said he was there to ensure the safety of the holy site and its occupants.

"We are staying as guests of the Franciscan priests," Madani said. "I am not with the fighters. I came into the church . . . to ensure the safety of the church and the priests. It's my duty as the governor of Bethlehem."

And a Franciscan priest who has made pro-Palestinian comments during the siege rejected the Israeli account that his fellow clerics had escaped. In a telephone interview, the Rev. Ibrahim Faltas said two of the monks left because they are elderly and infirm and weren't up to the ordeal.

"They did not run away," Faltas said. "They were not hostages. They shook hands with the governor before leaving."

Painting the Israeli military as the villains of the drama, Palestinians condemned the troops for gunning down a mentally impaired bell ringer when he emerged from the church Thursday morning.

On Friday, Israeli commanders gave their version of the death of Samir Abraham Salman, a former altar boy and longtime employee at the church, calling it a tragic misunderstanding. When Salman came out of the church, he was shouting and running and refused orders to stop, the commanders said. After firing in the air and then near him, soldiers shot him because they feared he could be an attacker or a suicide bomber, Aviv said.

"He was killed, and I am sorry about it," Aviv said.

Thirteen Palestinians have died in fighting with Israelis in the Bethlehem area since Tuesday and 34 have been wounded, according to Israeli officials. Four Israeli soldiers have been wounded during the operation.

Five more Palestinian deaths were added to the casualty list in Bethlehem on Friday. Israeli military officers said they found the brutalized corpses of five Palestinians slain by fellow Palestinians because they were suspected collaborators with the Israel Defense Forces.

In addition, 10 to 14 of the Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity are wounded, Aviv said.

Although the barricaded Palestinians warn periodically that the Israelis are preparing a commando raid on the compound, the Israelis seem painfully aware of their thorny challenge. Their enemy has attracted worldwide attention by taking refuge at a historic crossroads of religious faiths where bloodshed would cause an uproar. The compound also houses Roman Catholic and Armenian houses of worship.

And the Israeli military, despite its well-known talent for daring rescues, appears handcuffed by its professed determination to avoid any damage to the church. If a rescue is needed, carrying it out without spilling blood or causing any damage would be extremely difficult.

For the moment, the Israelis said they will continue to wait and negotiate with their enemies inside.

"We do negotiate with them," Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, the planning chief for the Israeli army, said at a briefing earlier in the day. "It is not a continuous negotiation, but we do manage to speak with them directly. And we are patient enough to solve this problem without causing any damage to the building and of course any harm to the [religious] community."

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