Monday, May 6, 2002 8:00pm

Middle East Journal:

The Siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem May Be Close to Resolution
Throughout Israel and Palestine attention is directed toward the ongoing
negotiations on ending the crisis at the Church of the Nativity in
Bethlehem.  For more that five weeks a determined group of Palestinian
fighters, monks, local citizens, and now ten peace activists of the
International Solidarity Movement (ISM) have been barricaded in the church
by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Despite an overwhelming ring of troops, snipers, tanks and observation
cameras, the besieged individuals in the church have refused to surrender
the church or the Palestinian fighters to the Israeli military.  Conditions
inside the church are critical, according to reports from the resistors.
Food, water and medical supplies are exhausted, and most of those in the
building are weak from hunger.

Reports from diplomatic channels and the world press indicate that serious
negotiations are in process and a resolution to the crisis may occur at any
time.  It is no longer a question of whether a resolution should be found
but rather how to arrange the details of implementing one.  The key issues
are the status and disposition of the Palestinian fighters in the church, as
well as the ISM peace activists.  At stake are the legal issues of arrest,
detention, criminal charges and deportation.  It may well be that the
outcome of the imminent discussions to be held between Prime Minister Sharon
and President Bush will hinge on how the crisis at Bethlehem is resolved.

If the siege of the Church of the Nativity is not lifted in the immediate
future, the International Solidarity Movement is prepared to attempt another
entry into the church with desperately needed food supplies.  The
individuals who have volunteered for this mission are fully aware that such
an action, even if successful in bringing food to the church, will
undoubtedly lead to detention, possibly arrest, and most certainly
deportation with exclusion from Israel for ten years.

The next few hours will determine what happens to the church and those who
sought refuge within it.  (It should be noted that churches historically
have always been a place of refuge and a sanctuary from pursuit.  The Church
of the Nativity has a special legacy as a place of refuge dating back to the
Islamic invaders of the seventh century, the Crusaders of the eleventh
century, and various persecutions and civil upheavals down to our own times.
This sanctuary has traditionally been available to all who sought the
protection of its walls, regardless of their civil, religious or political

In the next few days a number of new ISM activities will be undertaken.
Tomorrow, a group of ISM observers will station themselves at Calandia
checkpoint on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah to note possible human
rights abuses directed toward people traveling between the two cities.  Of
particular concern are the children who are frequently harassed and
prevented from passing directly to their schools.  Other concerns will be
arbitrary and often humiliating delays, body searches and general
mistreatment of travelers by Israeli military forces at the checkpoint.
Under current security procedures, movement between towns in many areas of
Palestine is effectively strangled, causing people to be virtual prisoners
in their own communities.

Other activities will involve placing more volunteers in Hebron and in the
West Bank to act as an international presence and witness to human rights
violations that usually go unreported.  Plans for these actions are now
being made.

Dennis B. Warner
Pax Christi USA
Johnny Zokovitch
Communications Director
Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement
(352) 271-6941