Sanctuary seekers still in exile
Dozens of Palestinians were sent into exile after the Church of the Nativity siege in Bethlehem 10 years ago. It is time they were reunited with their families, writes Stuart Littlewood in Bethlehem
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A demonstration against the continued exile of Palestinians after Israel's siege of the Church of the Nativity a decade ago
The election of Egypt's new president Mohamed Mursi momentarily threw a spotlight on the long-forgotten Palestinians exiled to Gaza after the Israelis' infamous siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank 10 years ago.
Still kicking their heels in Gaza, the exiles called on Mursi to continue efforts to end the squabble between Palestinian political rivals Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. They were optimistic that the new Egyptian president would work towards easing Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and press for Palestinians rights, including the right of exiles to return home.
It is expected that Mursi will at least allow greater freedom to travel across Gaza's Rafah crossing into Egypt, the besieged enclave's only door to the outside world.
Yet, how did the exiles find themselves in the prison Gaza has become? In 2002, a young girl from a Palestinian refugee camp triggered events that led to a 40-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This is probably the oldest Christian church in the world, built by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great and dating from 330 CE.
A member of the girl's family had been killed by Israeli occupation troops. Grief-stricken, she took revenge by turning herself into a suicide bomber. The Israelis responded by sending 250 tanks and armoured personnel carriers, F-16 fighter jets, Apache gunships and hundreds of soldiers into West Bank towns like Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem.
In Bethlehem, they cut the electricity supply and invaded the old township with helicopter gunships and occupied all key points around Manger Square. Many innocent Palestinians were killed by shelling and army snipers, and the market and some shops were set on fire as troops tried to hunt down suspected "fighters". Civilians tried desperately to hide from the troops, and a large number of people took refuge or arrived for other reasons at the Church and found themselves trapped there and unable to leave.
A few years ago, I interviewed one of the survivors, who recalled that "248 people took refuge there. They included one member of Islamic Jihad, 28 members of Hamas, and 50 to 60 members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The remainder were ordinary townsfolk, and included 100 uniformed Palestinian Authority workers, 26 children and eight to 10 women and girls. The Israeli soldiers would not allow them to leave, but they escaped in the first week by a back door."
Priests and nuns, Armenian, Greek and Catholic, from the adjoining monasteries brought the number to over 300 at the beginning. "Some of them went back to the monasteries, but some stayed with us every day for the 40 days," I was told.
The Vatican was outraged. The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem called on Christians worldwide to make the upcoming Sunday a "solidarity day" for the people in the Church and the Church itself, and urged immediate intervention to stop what it called the "inhuman measures against the people and the stone of the Church".
The Israelis set up cranes on which were mounted robotic machine-guns under video control. According to eyewitnesses, eight defenders, including the bellringer, were murdered, some by the armchair button-pushers playing with their video sticks and some by regular snipers.
From the start, said one survivor, the Israeli troops used psychological warfare methods, including disorienting noise to deprive them of sleep, bright lights and concussion grenades. They paraded the families of the besieged in front of the Church to pressure those within to surrender. They also used illegal dum-dum bullets that cause horrendous wounds and trauma. "Most of those who were killed died because of the dum-dums“ê¶ there was so much bleeding, and it took so long to arrange to send them to a hospital." The informant said that the Israeli soldiers had fired tracer rounds into two of the monasteries and set the ancient fabric of the buildings alight.
Fifteen days into the siege, those inside managed to recharge their cellphones using the mains that supplied the Church towers and call for help. The Israelis had overlooked the fact that there was a separate power supply coming from the Bethlehem municipality. Friends responded by sending food to the medical centre. From there, it went by ambulance, along with authentic casualties, and was delivered to houses near the Church.
At night, young girls carried the food in plastic bags from house to house until supplies reached the dwellings next door to the Church. The bags were then thrown from roof to roof. This went on for six days until one girl dropped a bag, which the soldiers found. The Israelis, now alerted, shot and paralysed another young man. This put an end to the food operation.
"Inside the Church, we vowed not to harm the soldiers unless they actually broke in. When the soldiers did gain access and killed one of the resisters, four of them were shot," I was told. Those trapped inside the Church were surprised to discover an old lady living within the complex. She had a small horde of olives and wheat, with which they made bread, eking out the food available for 28 days.
The governor of Bethlehem and director of the Catholic Society were among those holding out in the Church. According to the survivor's first-hand account, those inside only opened the door if someone died or was injured. He recalled watching through a peephole and seeing people approaching across the forecourt.
"They were from the Peace Movement, 28 of them. By now the world media were watching. 17 were arrested, but 11 took a big risk, managing to bluff their way in and bringing food in their rucksacks, which lasted another four days, and basic medicines."
The worst time, he said, was during the final week when there was no food and only dirty water from the well. They resorted to boiling leaves and old chicken legs to make a soup. He ate only lemons and salt for five or six days. "Many people were so ill by this time that they were passing blood."
Outside, some 15 civilians had been indiscriminately shot in the street or in their homes. The Israelis refused to allow the dead in the Church to be removed for decent burial. "In the end, the governor decided it would be better to be in jail than to die. So, we opened the door and surrendered on the 40th day. 148 people had survived. We were promptly arrested and interrogated."
"Thirteen people were exiled to the EU, 26 were exiled to Gaza, 26 were wounded, and 26 had surrendered because they were under-age. Eight people were killed inside the Church, and with Samir, the bellringer, that made nine. They shot Samir in front of the Church as he came out to surrender."
The rest were allowed home, including the survivor. "The Israelis asked me, 'do you know why you are going home? Because America wants it'." The adverse publicity had prodded the US and EU into deciding the fate of the survivors.
The whole disgraceful episode would no doubt have ended in more carnage if the world's media had not tuned in and 10 international activists, including members of the International Solidarity Movement, had not managed to enter the Church.
The exiles have not been allowed to work since, or to receive visits from their families. According to some reports, they were not even allowed to say good-bye to their loved ones before being packed off.
What exactly were they guilty of? They may have been Palestinian gunmen, but the last time I checked it was perfectly OK to put up armed resistance against an illegal military occupation. Israel's gunmen happen to wear uniform and they are equipped with the best weaponry American tax dollars can buy. They are fond of saying, that "we have a right to defend ourselves." So do the Palestinians, obviously.
So why did America and the EU lend themselves to this shameful act of exiling, a helpful boost to Israel's ongoing programme of ethnic cleansing on the West Bank? Having got their hands dirty, isn't it time, after 10 years, that they cleaned up their act and insisted that these forgotten men be re-united with their families?
A few weeks ago, the Israeli press was practising its usual distortions and telling readers that "the terrorists took shelter in the famous Church, and used about 40 priests and nuns as shields, knowing Israel would not take the chance of inadvertently hurting priests and nuns."
But for Israel's gunslingers, it was open season on bellringers and other innocent people.
The writer is author of Radio Free Palestine.