Two sides, two stories, one church

Church of the Nativity standoff underscores the wider divide

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Israel's offensive in the West Bank enters its 12th day, an armed standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity conveys anew how desperate the strife is becoming: Even shrines are battlegrounds.

Each side's understanding of the standoff also reflects the larger ways in which Israelis and Palestinians refuse to consider the validity of each other's claims to the land that is at the heart of their conflict.

In the Israeli version, to use the words of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian "murderers ... have commandeered the church and are holding the clergymen hostage." In the Palestinian version, fighters, clergy, and civilians are defending themselves and their church from an Israeli invasion. Bethlehem is the center of Palestinian Christianity.

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Asked if noncombatants inside the church were free to go, Rev. Amjad Sabbara, the Catholic custodian of the church, replies: "Why do we have to leave? We are the custodians of this house, this holy place." One of the most sacred sites in Christendom, the Church of the Nativity is revered by many as the birthplace of Jesus.

"It's horrible what's happening here," said Father Amjad, speaking by telephone yesterday from the church. He described a gunfight early yesterday morning that killed a Palestinian policeman, injured two Israeli border policemen, set a parish building ablaze, and damaged a sixth-century mosaic.

Peter Qumri, director of the general hospital that serves Bethlehem, says the Israeli military would not allow ambulance workers to remove the policeman's body; Amjad says it remains in the church.

In another example of the up-is-down rhetoric of recent days, the Israelis have labelled their ongoing reoccupation of nearly all the urban areas of the West Bank "Operation Defensive Shield." At the same time, Palestinians are using a new name for Israel's military, which is known as the Israel Defense Forces. It is the Israel Offensive Forces.

Israel says it wants to destroy "the infrastructure of terror" by arresting or killing Palestinian militants and seizing their weapons. The Palestinians say the goal is to destroy the Palestinian Authority (PA), the government created following the peace deals of the mid-1990s, and to reassert Israeli control over Palestinian territories.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, seems to buy the second interpretation. In Brussels yesterday, he told reporters Israel's military operation "now is clearly being directed against the Palestinian Authority's infrastructure, and we cannot find an end to this ... without the Palestinian Authority."

Despite demands by President Bush that Israel withdraw "without delay" from Palestinian-ruled areas, Mr. Sharon yesterday told parliament that "the IDF will ... continue to operate, as speedily as possible, until this mission has been accomplished...."

He also asked parliamentary approval for three new Cabinet ministers, including a hawkish former general, Ephraim Eitam. Mr. Eitam argues that Palestinians should never have sovereignty over any part of the "land of Israel," a phrase that is taken to mean Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Fighting continued yesterday in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, where Palestinian gunmen in the Old City have been holding off Israel's re-occupation. The Israeli military said some Palestinians were laying down their arms and surrendering.

Some Palestinians also walked out of the Jenin refugee camp, also in the northern West Bank, but reports indicated that Palestinian gunmen there were intent on fighting to the death. The IDF estimates more than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the camp since Israel began its current effort to seize control.

Overall, an estimated 200 Palestinians have been killed in nearly two weeks of fighting. The Israeli military says 15 of its soldiers also have been killed.

Israel began its offensive by announcing it would "isolate" PA President Yasser Arafat, but his oft-repeated declarations that he would prefer to be "martyred" by Israel than exiled or imprisoned have again boosted the Palestinian leader's popularity. He may be cut off because of Israel's continuing occupation of his compound in Ramallah, but his connection to his people seems as strong as ever.

Mohammed al-Madani, the PA's governor of the Bethlehem area and one of the people inside the Church of the Nativity, says that an Israeli soldier had contacted him by phone, asking to negotiate the surrender of the fighters in the church. Of the 240 people inside the sanctuary, Mr. Madani says, well more than half are armed, including members of PA security forces.

Like Amjad, the governor said the noncombatants in the church were there of their own volition. "They are forced to stay because they fear death," he said, referring to the threat posed by Israeli forces outside the church, "not because anyone is telling them to stay."

"He said people should surrender," Madani adds, relating his conversation with the Israeli soldier. "I said to him again and again, you negotiate that with Yasser Arafat, you don't negotiate that with me."

The Israeli replied, according to Madani: "If you do not surrender and do not get out of there, there will be a big operation – we will storm the church."

Sharon, however, said yesterday that other forces should bring the Palestinians out. "We expect the international community to demand that they lay down their weapons and leave the holy site. Until that time the IDF will remain there to prevent them from escaping justice."

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