- Bethlehem (CNSNews.com) - Israel would consider using
a military option to remove terrorists and hostages from the Church of
the Nativity in Bethlehem, if negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian
Authority fail to resolve the standoff crisis there, said an Israeli army
spokesman Friday in Bethlehem.
- Some 200 armed Palestinians have been holed up for more
than three weeks in one of Christianity's holiest sites, built over the
grotto where many believe that Jesus was born.
- As many as 30 Palestinian youths and about 35 nuns and
priests are also inside the compound, and Israel says they are being held
against their will.
- Speaking to reporters at the Star Hotel in Bethlehem,
army spokesman Capt. Joel Leyden said negotiations are continuing round
- "We have negotiations, which are ongoing 24 hours
a day," Leyden said. "We are making every attempt to get people
out of this church as safely in the most orderly fashion we can."
- Formal negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian Authority
officials began earlier this week to try to end the standoff.
- Israel has demanded that the wanted terrorists inside
the church - estimates range from four to 30 - either give themselves up
for trial in Israel or go into lifelong exile from Israel and PA areas.
- The PA has rejected that demand but there has been some
apparent movement in the talks. Nine Palestinians youths were set free
on Thursday and the bodies of two Palestinians were removed from the compound.
- Israel allowed PA negotiator Salah Ta'amri to travel
to Ramallah on Friday to meet with PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, who remains
holed up in his office compound surrounded by Israeli tanks. Earlier, Arafat
reportedly told the gunmen in the church not to surrender.
- "We have the greatest respect for the church,"
Leyden told reporters who were huddled around him in the lobby of the hotel.
- "We have no desire whatsoever to inflict any damage
on the church and we're doing our very, very best ... to find a peaceful
solution to getting the hostages out of the church and getting the terrorists
out of the church," he said.
- "Now if we can't find a peaceful solution in the
very near future then there will be a military option," he added.
- Leyden declined to say what kind of a military operation
might be attempted but said it would "exclude harming any civilians."
He also refused to say if the army had any deadline for how long it would
give the negotiations to work before taking other action but said that
Israel had "all the time in the world."
- Israel has come under strong criticism by the press for
not allowing journalists into Manger Square where the church is located.
But Leyden argued that it is a closed military zone for strategic reasons.
- "We have a closed military zone because we don't
want you broadcasting our military maneuvers, our operations to the enemy.
It's that simple," he said. By doing so journalists would be "jeopardizing"
the lives of soldiers and civilians as well, he added.
- The Star Hotel, which sits on a side street some 200
meters from Manger Square has apparently been commandeered by the army.
Soldiers were seen arriving with their equipment and duffle bags. Nearby
entrances to Manger Square were blocked with coils of razor wire.
- The streets of Bethlehem were deserted on Friday as the
city was under Israeli military curfew for the fifth straight day. Stores
and homes were shuttered during the morning and only the occasional soul
was seen on the streets.
- The curfew was to be lifted for several hours Friday
afternoon so residents can stock up on food and other necessities.
- "Let's keep things in perspective here," Leyden
said. "We have one of Christianity's most holy places, this church
here in Bethlehem, which has been attacked, captured and people are being
held hostage there.
- "As Israelis, as human beings, as people that respect
other religions, this is something we cannot and will not tolerate,"
- "What gets us upset is when a group of terrorists
hijacks, takes over a sacred place, such as the church and actually spits
at Christianity and that hurts us," he added.
- Critics have argued that the people in the church are
not actually being held hostage but Leyden said that because of the dynamics
of the community no one inside would actually dare to admit to being held
against his will.
- Leyden argued that Israel could bomb the church but instead
had put the lives of its soldiers at risk in order to prevent civilian
- Israel entered Bethlehem -- and several other PA-controlled
cities on the West Bank -- nearly four weeks ago as part of its Operation
Defensive Shield, following a series of suicide bomb attacks. According
to officials, the aim of the military incursion was to arrest wanted terrorists,
collect illegal weapons and destroy bomb-making factories.