As the 36-day siege of the Church of the Nativity was nearing a close Tuesday, Palestinians here were fearful that the deal exiling 13 gunmen could set a dangerous precedent.
"Israel, with Palestinian approval, has implemented a policy of transfer" of Palestinians out of their homeland, lamented Manuel Hassassian, an adviser to the Palestinian Authority. "That has very negative implications for the future."
The long siege of one of the most sacred sites in Christendom, where Jesus is said to have been born, symbolizes the way the elemental nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compels world attention.
Nearly 200 people have been trapped in the 4th-century basilica, reduced to eating herbs out of hunger. Five have been killed by Israeli snipers.
It also underscores the value of outside intervention, as the United States becomes more deeply involved in solving the larger conflict.
A deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to send 13 men wanted by Israel to Italy hung in the balance at press time, as the Italian government complained that it had not been properly consulted.
In Bethlehem, all was ready for an end to the siege under an agreement brokered by the United States and the European Union to send 13 men to Italy, another 26 to the Gaza Strip, and to free the rest.
Palestinian negotiators had long rejected Israel's demands that the men it holds responsible for planning suicide bomb attacks and other violence against Israelis should be sent abroad.
Mr. Arafat's decision to face down popular discontent and to permit exile as a solution to the crisis has met with almost universal condemnation from Palestinian factions both inside and outside the Palestine Liberation Organization that he heads.
Some relatives of the men to be sent away were also furious yesterday, and not only because they were not to be allowed to see their loved ones before they left. "It is a cheap sellout" says Nyasa Kamel, the mother of one of the men to be exiled. "Unfortunately President Arafat did not deliver what he was supposed to deliver."
"This deal is against our interests," adds her daughter Abir. "They are taking the best fighters who resisted the occupation."
The men sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity on April 2, when they were beaten back by invading Israeli forces.
The nature of the deal stuck in the throats of many other Palestinians, too. Since occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, Israel has deported hundreds of Palestinian leaders, most recently a group of Islamic activists belonging to Hamas who were forcibly transported to the other side of the Lebanese border in 1993.
"Tomorrow, whenever we face situations like this, Israel will resort to this policy," predicts Dr. Hassassian, the rector of Bethlehem University.
"It runs directly counter to a principle we are fighting for, the right of return" of Palestinian refugees forced from their homes during the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948, he adds.
The planned departure of the gunmen struck an especially sensitive nerve among Palestinians because many fear that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ultimate secret goal is to remove all Palestinians from the West Bank.
That plan for "transfer" has long been the avowed aim only of extreme right-wing parties in the Israeli parliament, but it has gained broader currency in Israeli political discourse in recent months.
Senior Palestinian officials, however, said their leader had had no choice. "The price is a heavy price, we know that very well," says Hanna Nasser, mayor of Bethlehem. "But this church has a value, and we could not afford for the siege to continue."
Others say the gunmens' fate did not constitute deportation, but rather an opportunity to travel abroad to pursue their studies. "If against my wishes I end up in Italy, I shall work on my Masters degree" said Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian intelligence chief in Bethlehem, speaking by mobile telephone from inside the church.
"This is not deportation," argued Mohammed Madani, the governor of Bethlehem, who has also been trapped inside the holy site since the siege began. "The men will be guests in a host country."
Mr. Madani, who was due to be freed when the standoff ended, denied that the deal might set a precedent. "This is an exceptional case," he said in a telephone interview from inside the church. "We were flexible because our main goal was to end the standoff."
"Given the balance of power between us and the Israelis, this deal is very favorable to us," he argued. "The Israelis wanted to kill these men or to try them in Israeli courts, and that did not happen."
Arafat, who took direct control of the negotiations once the Israelis lifted their siege of his headquarters last week, came under intense pressure not only from Washington, Palestinian negotiators said, but also from the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and the Vatican, which share responsibility for guarding the holy site.
Palestinian officials involved in the crisis said that the welfare of 140,000 people living under almost permanent curfew in the Bethlehem area for the past five weeks had also motivated the Palestinian leader's desire to reach an accord with the Israelis.
Life in this tourist town and in the neighboring town of Beit Jala has come to a complete standstill since the Israeli army occupied the area, with residents unable to go to work or to school, shops closed except for a few hours every four days, the government paralyzed, and the streets deserted.
"We could not afford to allow the Israelis to continue to hold Bethlehem hostage," says Mayor Hanna Nasser angrily. "I hope that they will get out and never come back again."