Freed Youths Tell Of Hunger
And Death In Church Of Nativity
By Justin Huggler in Bethlehem
The Independent - London

Hundreds of people, hungry and exhausted, crouch in corners of the echoing church as gunfire rips through it. A group of young men sleep in the grotto where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born. All of them have been surviving on tiny rations of food which are running out.

The world got its first glimpse of what life is like inside the besieged Church of the Nativity yesterday, from eight Palestinian youths allowed to leave the church by the Israeli army. A ninth is still being held for questioning.

Mahmoud Najjar, a 17-year-old, told us how he had been forced to survive on herbs boiled in salt water. "If it hadn't been for that, I wouldn't be alive to speak to you now".

His stomach had shrunk so much from his time inside the church that when he tried to eat a small plate of food, he doubled up with cramps.

Israeli troops have besieged the church for some three weeks now. Gunfire regularly breaks out around it. Only yesterday, Israeli troops shot and wounded two Palestinians inside the compound. They were evacuated for medical treatment.

Inside the church are some 200 Palestinians who took sanctuary there when the Israeli army launched its assault on Bethlehem. With them are around 30 monks who have vowed to stay to prevent a "bloodbath".

As many as 50 of those inside are unarmed civilians, according to the accounts now emerging for the first time. The bulk of the rest, say those who have come out, are from the myriad of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian security services, who are armed but are not suspected of any involvement in suicide bombings on Israelis.

Mahmoud told us how he had to flee to the church when he went to Manger Square to look for his brother, who is mentally handicapped, as the Israeli army attacked. He was with a friend of his, Hamze Ammash, the 17-year-old who was last night still being held by the Israeli army for questioning.

The young men were blocked from their path home by Israeli gunfire and a Palestinian policeman advised them to take shelter inside the Church of the Nativity.

"Those of us who managed to reach the church door got there by a miracle," he said. "If anyone was shot or injured in any way, no one could rescue him."

Inside, Mahmoud said, they were forced to remain in certain chapels and other rooms, because other parts of the church came under fire. A statue of the Virgin Mary, he said, had been badly cut up by gunfire.

At first, those inside set up a makeshift clinic for the wounded, he said, but now the medicine has run out. The food has run out too, he said. For a while, those inside lived off lettuce and beans picked from the church gardens.

Mahmoud said: "One of the priests, Father Angelo, volunteered to go out and bring in some of the things from the garden. A guy from the National Security went with him, a young man from Gaza, but he was shot and killed by the Israelis. They know we are getting food from there now. That was two days ago."

Fuad al-Laham, another of the youths who was allowed out, told us that the last meal he ate inside the church was half a tea-glass of lentil soup, rigorously rationed out by the monks. "They cooked 600kg of lentils for 200 people," he said. "It was mostly water." He said those inside the church have now run out of water and salt, and have nothing to survive on.

Monks and nuns appear to have taken charge of the humanitarian situation inside the church.

Fuad told us five of those inside the church have now been killed. When the nine youths were allowed to leave by the Israeli army, they had to carry two dead bodies with them. Both youths we spoke to talked of those inside being pinned down in small parts of the church when the shooting started, because bullets cut across most of the building.

George Bush yesterday called for a "non-violent" end to the stand-off in Bethlehem. That was hours before two Palestinians inside the church were wounded by Israeli gunfire. The Israeli army said they were gunmen.

Captain Joel Leyden of the Israeli army said of the stand-off: "We do not want to prolong this, therefore we could resort to a military option."

Israeli forces yesterday moved back into the occupied West Bank as their government again pressured the United Nations to delay a fact-finding mission to determine what happened in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin.

In an investigation earlier this week, The Independent revealed almost half the Palestinian dead identified in the camp so far were civilians, including a nurse, women, children and the elderly.

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