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The Middle East

Bethlehem Church Fire Is a Mystery

Mideast: Israelis, Palestinians offer contradictory accounts of how the blaze began.

April 09, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The blood and fire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict invaded hallowed ground Monday.

Six days after the standoff at the Church of the Nativity began, predawn gunplay at the besieged church left a Palestinian policeman dead and two Israeli soldiers wounded. A fire caused by the skirmish damaged a Catholic parish building in the religious compound, which is believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus.

And the psychological and public relations war here escalated, making the outlook increasingly ominous for nearly 80 priests, monks and nuns inside who are either unwilling hostages, benevolent hosts or an uncomfortable combination of the two.

About the only thing Israelis and Palestinians agreed on Monday was that the violence resulted in the standoff's first death within the compound.

But the Israeli military said Palestinian snipers shot two Israeli border policemen deployed on a rooftop outside the compound, provoking an exchange of gunshots and grenades that caused the fire. In contrast, Palestinian leaders and some priests inside the compound said Israelis attempted a sneak attack over a rooftop, set off the blaze and left bullet holes inside the 4th century Church of the Nativity.

The contradictory versions showed that the besieged church occupied by more than 140 Palestinians--most of them accused terrorists, militia fighters or members of security forces--has become an ironic symbol of irreconcilable conflict. The drama is like a grim postcard from this crossroads of faiths, a once-beautiful, now-ruined city in the hills where things keep getting stranger.

The blaze was extinguished early Monday by Palestinian firefighters based in Bethlehem. As an Arabic television station replayed images of smoke rising over the spires and bell towers of the old city, the firefighters sleepily puffed cigarettes and recalled the startling emergency call they got at 4:30 a.m.

An agitated Bethlehem Gov. Mohammed Madani, who is inside the Church of the Nativity with the gunmen, was on the line exclaiming that explosions and shots that had broken out an hour earlier had sparked a fire in the compound, which is surrounded by Israeli troops.

Telephone negotiations ensued among Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. consular officials mediating from Jerusalem. The firefighters responded and were permitted into the compound at 6:30 a.m. after they were thoroughly searched by Israeli soldiers.

The soldiers, who had half a dozen extensible ladders in tow, looked angry, the firefighters said. And the Palestinians inside were on edge because a Palestinian Authority policeman, Khaled Siam, lay dead. It was unclear how he died.

"It was a critical situation," said firefighter Mohammed Yacoub. "The people inside had some suspicions that we might be Israelis disguised as firefighters. And we knew we were surrounded by Israeli snipers who, if we made any kind of wrong move, might shoot at us."

The blaze consumed wood furniture in the second-floor dining hall and kitchen in a wing of the Franciscan monastery next to a compound wall. The firefighters saw what they described as the remnants of flares and stun grenades used by Israeli troops who, according to Palestinians inside, had entered over the rooftop and fired into the church.

Madani and others inside alleged in telephone interviews Monday that as the incident began, an Israeli officer called and urged the governor to surrender because a raid was imminent. Instead, the Israelis retreated and left behind a two-way radio with Hebrew writing on it and four rifles, Palestinians said.

Siam was the second fatality of the siege; last week Israeli soldiers shot and killed a mentally impaired bell ringer who they said ran from the compound into the street and ignored orders to stop.

"It's clear that the Israelis attacked," said Anton Salman, a community leader in the church, who claimed that Israeli gunfire had hit a 6th century mosaic. "There are bullet holes in the walls and in the mosaic also."

Nonsense, responded an Israeli army spokesman, who said no Israeli had entered the churchyard. Troops outside in Manger Square opened fire and threw smoke grenades only to protect the evacuation of the wounded border police officers, who are part of a paramilitary unit specializing in hostage situations, according to Israel Defense Forces spokesman Marcus Scheff. One policeman was in serious condition, he said.

"We had to evacuate the two policemen while we were under fire, which is outrageous," Scheff said. "They are literally trying to provoke us, shooting to provoke us to enter. . . . They have large caches of weapons in there, don't forget, and some might be Israeli weapons."

The fire could have been caused by the Palestinians, who may have errantly thrown a grenade, or by the Israeli smoke grenades, Scheff said. The mystery will probably go unsolved as long as the standoff is unresolved.

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