Christ's Birthplace Under Israeli Siege
By Christine Hauser

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AFP) - Israeli forces laid siege to the church that marks where Jesus Christ was born, seeking to arrest dozens of Palestinian gunmen they said had fired on them from one of Christianity's holiest sites.
Witnesss said 300-400 people were holed up without food in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on Wednesday, after Israeli troops, tanks and armored cars seized the city as part of a massive offensive on the West Bank.
They said most were civilians, including women and children, and half a dozen were wounded. But an Israeli military source said they included dozens of gunmen affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
The source, who asked not to be named, said the Palestinians opened fire on Israeli troops, and "we have tried to establish contact with them so that they can be arrested without spilling blood."
Israeli army officials said they had given strict orders not to fire at any churches but Palestinian security sources said a 39-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli sniper fire outside the Church of the Nativity.
A man claiming to be the commander of the gunmen inside the church, who refused to give his name or affiliation, said his men were under orders not to open fire.
"The fighters have instructions not to shoot in holy places and not to give the Israelis the pretext to do so," he told AFP.
Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said the Palestinians could claim sanctuary inside the church and had already lain down their arms.
"The basilica, a church, is a place of refuge for everybody, even fighters, as long as they lay down their weapons," he said.
"In this case, we have an obligation to give refuge to Palestinians and Israelis alike."
They were pinned down by troops deployed in Manger Square in the city which the Israelis have proclaimed a "closed military zone" and restricted local movements.
A group of 200 clergymen representing all the churches in the Holy Land tried to enter the city Wednesday but were turned back at a roadblock.
"Israeli army officials told us that Bethlehem was a closed miltiary zone and we couldn't get in," said Father Raed Abusahlia, secretary to the Catholic patriarch in Jerusalem.
Father Abusahlia said the group, led by Sabbah, had hoped to express its support for local residents during "the critical situation in all the Palestinian areas, especially Bethlehem."
The priest said they had received reports of many churches being fired upon as the Israelis moved into Bethlehem.
Bethlehem Mayor Hannan Nasser called the Israeli incursion "a barbarous act" and said, "The army doesn't respect anything, neither the churches nor the municipalities."
But the streets were deserted Wednesday as the Israelis stayed mainly indoors or in their tanks. Only sporadic light gunfire rattled through the city.

Email This Article


This Site Served by TheHostPros