On April 2, as Israeli forces invaded Bethlehem, a lanky, dark-haired teenager named Omar Habib left his apartment to get some medicine for his mother. His way home blocked by Israeli troops, he sought shelter in the Church of the Nativity.
That first night was the worst, he says. Armed Palestinians guarded the gates and doors of the ancient church, fearing an Israeli intrusion. Instead of incense and quiet, there was the smell of smoke and the sound of gunfire. Israeli flares sporadically lit the darkness of the sanctuary.
Mr. Habib huddled near an entrance to the grotto that Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus, and waited for daylight.
Twenty-three days later, Habib emerged from the church, along with eight other young men. So far this week, 28 additional people have walked out. Along with their survival-of-the-fittest tales of life inside, Habib and others are disputing Israeli assertions that Palestinian gunmen are holding clergy and civilians as hostages.
Habib was among the first large group freed as a result of negotiations to end a bitter standoff. Perhaps as many as 150 people clergy, civilians, and members of Palestinian security forces and militant groups remain inside the church. Israeli forces, adamant that two dozen or so of the holdouts be handed over for trial or sent into exile, remain outside.
Jamal Yousef Musallam, a member of the Palestinian Preventative Security force who came out of the church Monday with 25 others, says those inside are "one body," a sentiment echoed by colleagues freed with him.
Given that they took cover in the church after fighting Israeli troops, and remained armed while inside, occasionally firing at the Israelis, their testimony could hardly be considered impartial. Habib's credibility seems more solid, in part because he claims to have had no involvement in politics and also because of his apparently frank description of the law-of-the-jungle atmosphere inside the church.
Some of the Palestinian gunmen, he says, broke doors in search of food, looted valuables, and took more food and blankets for themselves than for the civilians in the sanctuary. He says that after a senior Palestinian official inside the church asked for and received a show of hands from those who wanted out, the official tried to dissuade them.
He appealed to their sense of patriotism and warned that they would be seen as traitors to the cause. While Palestinian militants sometimes kill those accused of collaborating with Israel, the official's latent threat did not keep Habib from obtaining early release.
He argued that his ailing mother needed him and that it was his duty to go to her.
Palestinian Christians have sometimes criticized militant Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, for using Christianity as a shield. For more than a year, gunmen have fired from a predominately Christian village, Beit Jala, toward a nearby Israeli settlement, prompting Israeli reprisal attacks and stirring Christian resentment.
Although Habib attends a prestigious, Catholic-run high school in Bethlehem, he is a Muslim. An elder brother has been hailed as a "martyr" after being killed by Israeli troops. Habib says that during his time in the church, he rose to pray every morning at 4:30.
Even though the sense of panic and turmoil abated after the first night, there was apparently much to pray about. For most of his three weeks in the church, the single daily meal consisted of a watery soup made from fiddlehead ferns gathered from the church compound, along with a meager dose of rice and beans provided by some of the priests.
Some of the armed men in the church are from the Gaza Strip, which has a spicier cuisine than the West Bank, and they demanded that the gruel be heavily flavored with peppers. "Many times I couldn't eat because [the food] was too disgusting or too hot because of the peppers," Habib says. He lost 22 pounds.
He had to share a blanket with two other boys, leading to fitful sleeps that were often interrupted by gunfire. By borrowing cellphones, he was able to keep his family informed of his condition.
With the electricity supply limited and the heating nonexistent, Habib says the people in the church used candles as a source of both light and heat. Outside, loudspeakers played sounds of babies crying, women screaming, and dogs fighting, according to wire reports. There were a few decks of cards, but they were never available to Habib. He and other youngsters had to pass the time in conversation.
Having been home for a week, his family can already rib him about the experience. Habib has "an endless supply of gossip," says his brother Nasser, who is visiting Bethlehem from his home in San Diego.
Mr. Musallam, the security force member, is nowhere near laughter. Five men were killed in the church shot suddenly by Israeli snipers or during exchanges of fire and he says he still sees images of those he saw die.
One, Hassan Nasman, was laid on the floor of the church near the birth grotto, where he bled copiously. Both Musallam and Habib, interviewed separately, say he called for his mother and repeatedly said, "I don't want to die." Musallam says he took his pocket-sized Koran and read to Nasman during his final moments.
In the early days of the siege, before negotiating teams had worked out ways to evacuate wounded men and corpses from the church, those inside had to improvise ways to store the dead.
The body of Khaled Abu Siam, a Palestinian policeman shot dead by Israeli forces April 8, lay 10 yards from Habib's sleeping place for two nights. Then some men assembled a makeshift coffin from some scrap wood, sealing gaps with candle wax. They stored the body in a cave named for the children slaughtered by King Herod.
When Habib's group left the church April 25, they brought Nasman and Abu Siam with them. Habib helped carry one of the bodies.