Church Of The Nativity Hit
By Fire As Battle Goes On

By Justin Huggler in Bethlehem The Independent - London

Palestinians accused the Israeli army of attempting to storm the Church of the Nativity last night after heavy gunfire broke out.
The army has been besieging some 240 Palestinian gunmen who took sanctuary in the church two weeks ago and the night sky over Bethlehem was lit up by bright flashes and blasts echoed through the deserted streets as fighting flared.
Mohammed al-Madani, the Palestinian governor of Bethlehem who is one of those trapped inside, said the Israelis had tried to storm the church but failed.
"They tried to get in, but they couldn't," he said by mobile telephone. "There are no injuries, thank God."
Father Seweryn Lubecki, one of several dozen Catholic priests stranded in the church, said the fighting lasted for about an hour. "We could hear heavy rifle and tank shooting," he said.
"It is hard for us to determine who started the shooting. We are locked up and we could not see the whole thing."
One of the chapels at the church was earlier set alight but those inside said they had managed to extinguish the fire.There were unconfirmed reports that the bell tower of the church had been damaged.
Hours before last night's fighting, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the head of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, condemned the Israeli army's siege in an interview with The Independent.
About 40 monks, mostly Franciscans, have volunteered to remain in the church with the gunmen to prevent a bloodbath.
There were unconfirmed reports last night that Israeli soldiers drove a bulldozer at one of the entrances to the church complex and tried to climb over the wall.
In the church, conditions were said to be deteriorating fast. Food has run out, and the fighters and clergy are hungry.
Two gunmen left the church, yesterday after the Israeli army agreed to evacuate them for medical reasons. One was seriously injured with a bullet wound to the chest, the other has epilepsy.
Among those still trapped is a fighter with a gunshot wound in one leg, now emitting a putrid smell, said witnesses. Dr Peter Kumri, who has spoken to those inside by phone, believes he has gangrene. Also inside are the unburied, decomposing bodies of two men killed by Israeli troops firing into the church.
Hours before the gunfire last night, Michael Sabbah, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, said the Israeli army should withdraw and allow the Palestinian fighters inside the church to leave freely. "Military laws end at the walls of our basilica," he said.
The stand-off at the church has developed into something out of legend, with the church insisting the principle of sanctuary overrides all concerns.
"They are refugees," the Patriarch said. "They took refuge inside the church. For us, once they have taken refuge, they are human beings. They are no longer fighters.
"An exceptional situation was created that overrides all military codes. They should be allowed to leave unharmed and without threat of imprisonment. If the military situation continues there will be another time to resolve this."
Israel, which says about 30 of the gunmen are wanted for terrorism, has offered to allow the gunmen out of the church only if they agree to go on trial before an Israeli military court, or go into permanent exile.
It has also refused to allow church authorities to take part in the negotiations to end the stand-off. That is in part because the Patriarch, a Palestinian, is considered highly politicised. "I am not for the Palestinians," he said. "I am for the oppressed."
During the Black September Jordanian assault on Palestinian militants in the 1970s, he was a priest in Jordan and gave sanctuary to Palestinian gunmen and a Jordanian policeman at the same time, keeping them in different parts of his church.
But the position in the West Bank now was different, he said. "This is not a war on terror," he insisted. "It is a war against occupation."

Email This Article


This Site Served by TheHostPros