Bethlehem’s people count the cost of the Israeli assault
The Tabletr, Aprtil 13, 2002

Bethlehem was mourning its dead this week and counting the scars inflicted by an intense week-long assault by Israel which has severely strained relations between Israel and the Vatican. On Monday gun battles and fire erupted around the Church of the Nativity, where hundreds of Palestinians, some of them armed, were seeking refuge from the fighting. Israel accused them of taking the friars and nuns inside the church hostage, and kept up its siege of the church.
Intense Vatican diplomatic efforts were under way to protect the Christian holy sites amid angry accusations by their Franciscan custodians that Israel had provoked the unprecedented violence around the birthplace of Christ.

On Sunday Pope John Paul II led Catholics across the world in a special day of prayer for peace. The next day, outraged Christians watched the smoke coiling above the rooftops of the basilica in Manger Square, where a fire blazed for an hour, destroying precious altar cloths as well as chalices and ancient furniture belonging to St Catherine’s. A Palestinian who tried to put it out was shot. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) said he was a gunman, and that Palestinians were shooting from a bell tower, Nicholas Jubber reports from the Holy Land.

Backed by the Israeli population and deplored by much of the world, the Israeli offensive against terrorists intensified throughout the West Bank. As The Tablet went to press the Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, was defying calls by President George Bush for an immediate and comprehensive withdrawal, but was expected to comply by the time the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, arrived in the Middle East on Thursday after a tour of Arab capitals. The IDF claims to have detained 1,413 Palestinians in ten days and to have killed more than 200. Every major West Bank city, apart from Jericho, has been a closed military zone, with scarce access for journalists, observers or ambulances.

Church leaders led by Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem attempted to march peacefully into Bethlehem on Monday in a show of solidarity with residents, but were turned back by Israeli soldiers. They held a moment of prayer for peace, then read out the gospel of the Nativity in Arabic, English and Italian. They also read a statement. “Peace cannot be obtained by the war”, they said. “We reject all bloodshed, Israeli or Palestinian. Bethlehem must no more be a place of war.”

The Christian leaders – among whom were the Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem, Mgr Pietro Sambi, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Bishop Aristarchos, and Fr Giovanni Battistelli, Custos of the Holy Land – later met the Israeli deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, and the Israeli deputy defence minister, Dalia Rabin. The meeting was held “to discuss a way out of the current crisis in general and the Nativity Church situation in particular”. Afterwards, both sides expressed their desire to find a peaceful solution, but were short on specifics.

At the heart of Bethlehem’s plight was the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, where among those shot dead by Israeli snipers were a Palestinian policeman and the church’s bell-ringer, Samir Ibrahim Salman. Inside the church, 45 Franciscans and 30 Greek and Armenian monks found themselves playing host to some 250 Palestinians, several dozen of them armed, whilst Merkava tanks rumbled ominously on the other side of the building’s Byzantine walls.

Prior to what was expected to be a major assault on the church, the Israelis accused the Palestinian gunmen of holding the Franciscans hostage, a view vigorously denied by the Franciscan Custos. He issued a statement through the Fides news agency, insisting that the friars “are not hostages: they are in their own house, in the precise place where they belong”. He said any armed assault involving the Church of the Nativity must be “absolutely out of the question”.

In Rome, the Franciscan master-general, Fr Giacomo Bini, said the friars in the church had asked the armed Palestinians inside to lay down their weapons, and had demanded an immediate Israeli withdrawal. “Our friars are inside with 200 Palestinians, most of whom are armed, and are surrounded by Israeli tanks.” It was, he said, “a dramatic situation – psychologically too”.

Fr Bini said the Franciscans in the convent of the Church of the Nativity were in no doubt that the Israeli army was responsible for blowing in a back door of the church, just as “the Palestinians broke down a door to get in in the first place”. Fr Bini issued a two-page appeal for an end to the confrontation, and referred to the Palestinians inside the church as “occupiers”. But the master general vowed that the Franciscans would not leave Bethlehem and would try to continue being peace mediators.

According to Fr Ra’ed Abusahlia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate, those inside the Church of the Nativity comprised “sisters, monks, civilians, including some children, members of the Palestinian Authority, the armed forces, and militants”. Fr Ra’ed spoke to The Tablet of his concern at shortages of food, water, and medicine. He said: “The main problem in the Bethlehem area is that no one can move. But every night the Israelis shoot at the church.” The Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Bethlehem became a refuge for “about 35 mostly young people who got stuck here, but live in villages outside”, according to its priest, Fr Magdi al-Siryani. “We’re scared to death”, explained Fr Magdi. “Before they came to Bethlehem, the Israelis were in Ramallah, and everyone knows what they did there.” Fr Magdi told The Tablet: “The church is not my church. It is the house of God and the pride of Bethlehem. Palestinians in Bethlehem, Christians and Muslims, have shared it for centuries. The Nativity Church has a special place in all our hearts. The fact that these people, most of them civilians, fled to the church is a message to the world: nobody is defending us, not the US, the UN or Britain.

“Where can we flee? The church is the only place that can protect us. If an Israeli soldier was injured, he could come into the church, and we would protect him.” Asked about the fire at the Church of the Nativity, Fr Magdi said the Israeli version was a fabrication. “Some of those who fled to the church were fighting, but when they got into the church, they stopped shooting.” He added: “Fr Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan priest, was shot at trying to open his window. Was he shooting? Of course not. The Israelis are trying to kill those who are hiding in the church.”

Meanwhile, in Rome the director of the Holy See press office, Dr Joaquín Navarro-Valls, said on 8 April that respecting the status quo of the holy sites was “an absolute priority”, Robert Mickens writes. Dr Navarro-Valls reminded both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that they had signed diplomatic accords with the Holy See (in 1993 and 2000 respectively) which guaranteed this. He said the presence of armed Palestinians in the convent marked an “unparalleled precedent in the centuries-long history of the Christian holy sites”. He categorically denied that the Holy See had submitted a plan to resolve the crisis, but he did say that the Pope’s Secretary of State and other Vatican diplomats – including the Nuncio in the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambi – were holding emergency talks with the United States and Israeli governments and the Palestinian Authority.

Navarro-Valls earlier made clear the Vatican’s position on the crisis under five headings. He said that the Holy See “unequivocally condemned terrorism, from whatever side it may come”; that it deplored the “conditions of injustice and humiliation imposed on the Palestinian people, as well as reprisals and retaliation, which only make the sense of frustration and hatred grow”; and that it called on both sides to respect United Nations resolutions and to respect the principle of proportionality in the use of legitimate means of defence.

In Bethlehem, where homes were occupied, family members beaten, and water, electricity and telephone grids destroyed, the city remained under curfew, its inhabitants trapped in their houses. They told of their exhaustion and the incessant noise of the army letting off sound grenades at night, on top of loudspeaker demands that those inside the Church of the Nativity leave it.

The British volunteer Liz Yates, working for the International Solidarity Movement, was in the Aida refugee camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. “We’re surrounded by tanks”, she told The Tablet on 8 April, “and people are very frightened”. The situation inside Bethlehem was even worse. “The Israelis have broken up the Old City”, she explained. “They allowed the people out for a few hours to get food, but then the curfew was announced by a man with a loudspeaker shouting that anybody outside will be shot on sight.” vThe Vatican-funded Bethlehem university, where the classrooms were already riddled with bullet holes from the previous Israeli incursion last year, was occupied this time for five days. According to Kenneth Cardwell, one of the De La Salle Brothers who run the university, the Israeli army “busted in a few doors and had one of our neighbours blindfolded and held against a wall. One of the brothers opened the door of his room at 3 a.m. one morning, stuck his head out, and they fired at him.”

At the Lutheran Christmas Church, the Revd Dr Mitri Raheb, author of I am A Palestinian Christian, discovered Israeli troops in his church compound on 4 April. They broke down office doors, rifled through files, and prevented him from using the telephone. He said he believed that the IDF was deliberately targeting Christian Palestinians. “Never in modern history”, he complained, “did so many Christian institutions get attacked. Our schools have been vandalised. Tanks have invaded church property. Most of the homes and institutions that have been targeted in Bethlehem were Christian.”