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In Bethlehem Standoff, Palestinians Play for Sympathy of Christian World

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The Palestinians played a very delicate card at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity — and seem to be getting away with it.

Palestinian gunmen and terrorists took over one of the holiest sites in Christendom shortly after Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in late March. Israel surrounded the church with tanks but refused to attack, hoping to spare the religious site and avoid antagonizing the Christian world.

Yet that restraint has won Israel few supporters: The international community has condemned Israel’s siege, while expressing hardly a word of censure for the Palestinian gunmen.

Wadia Abu-Nassar, former political advisor of the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah, said that may stem from the biblical tradition of finding shelter at places of religious worship.

“It is perceived as perfectly legitimate by the Church,” Abu-Nassar said.

But the standoff also demonstrates the delicate balance of forces between Israel, the Muslim-dominated Palestinian Authority and the Christian world, especially the Vatican.

Some 200 Palestinians fleeing the Israel Defense Force offensive shot their way into the Church of the Nativity, which Christian tradition identifies as the birthplace of Jesus. The gunmen of the Palestinian Authority — which used to boast that it was the protector of the Christian sites in the Holy Land — instead have turned the holy sites into their protectors.

Palestinian officials often try to portray themselves as the inheritors of Jesus — “the first Palestinian,” in P.A. President Yasser Arafat’s phrase — who, they frequently note, also was persecuted by the Jews.

As bizarre as it may seem, the analogy is gaining some traction in Europe, where an Italian newspaper recently ran a cartoon showing Israeli tanks surrounding a baby Jesus. The caption made clear the intended connection between Jesus’ tribulations with the Jews and the plight of the Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity.

Some 30 to 50 of the Palestinians inside the church are believed to be armed, among them wanted terrorists.

Also inside are several dozen priests and about 20 children. Israel says the priests are being held hostage, though some have said they are there of their own free will.

Five civilians fled the church on Sunday. They were immediately seized by IDF soldiers and interrogated, describing harsh conditions inside, though Israel has allowed aid workers to bring food, water and medical supplies into the church.

Israel has withdrawn from all the other cities it occupied during Operation Defensive Shield, continuing to maintain a siege only on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and the church in Bethlehem.

The terrorists inside the church show no signs of turning themselves in, however. In fact, Palestinian sources say the gunmen have declared they would rather commit suicide than surrender.

On the face of it, Israel has the upper hand. IDF soldiers encircle the holy compound, and the Palestinians are locked in.

But time is against Israel. Spearheaded by the Vatican, the Christian world has exerted heavy pressure on Israel to let the terrorists leave and move to Gaza. In any case, Sabah said at a demonstration Sunday, Israel would face the men in other battles soon and could settle scores with them then.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has presented a solution to the crisis: The gunmen can either surrender and face prosecution in Israeli courts, or accept permanent exile from the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinians have rejected the offer.

With Israel facing a very delicate propaganda fight over the battle in the Jenin refugee camp, it can hardly afford further complications over Bethlehem.

“The entire confrontation could have been averted,” suggested Yisrael Lippel, former director general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and an expert on the Christian community in Israel and the territories. “The pictures of a confrontation at the church are not worth the possible gain of laying hands on a number of terrorists.”

“For a year and a half Israel has known how to avoid the trap,” agreed Res. Col. Shalom Harari, former adviser on Arab Affairs at the Defense Ministry, “and yet now it fell right into it.”

The Vatican — which has tried to mediate the conflict through a converted Jew, Father David Jaeger — is caught in a delicate situation.

Its prime interest is to preserve the holy site. Its secondary interest is not to anger the Arab world, where the Catholic church has congregations, property and other interests.

Therefore, it seems, the Vatican will take no measures that the Arab world might see as sympathetic to Israel — certainly not at a time when Israel’s international stock is plummeting.

Leaders of the Arab community in Israel and heads of various Christian denominations staged a protest Sunday at the checkpoint just north of Bethlehem.

“The fighters who are inside have to go away,” Patriarch Sabah said. “Let the fighters get free from there.”

The Israelis, he said, “will meet them at another struggle anyway.”

In his weekly Sunday sermon, Pope Paul II again urged the parties to put an end to the Bethlehem stand-off.

Israel’s interests are last on the Vatican’s list, even though the government recently bent over backward to please the Holy See.

Due to heavy pressure from the Vatican, the Sharon government halted all construction work on the Shihab a-Din mosque in Nazareth, which had infuriated the Pope because of its proximity to the Church of the Annunciation.

The Israeli government preferred a possible confrontation with its own large Muslim community to a diplomatic row with the Vatican — but apparently its concession didn’t earn Israel any goodwill.

Symbolically, the Bethlehem gunmen took hostage not only the priests in the church but the entire Christian establishment. The Christians long ago lost their hold on the “Christian triangle,” as Bethlehem and the adjacent towns of Beit Jallah and Beit Sahour are known.

In the past, the Christians constituted a majority in the triangle, a prosperous community of businessmen who made the region one of the few economic success stories in the Palestinian territories.

But since the Israeli withdrawal, the Christian population has been decimated through intimidation from the Muslim- dominated Palestinian Authority and, consequently, emigration.

Whereas Christians made up a 60 percent majority of triangle residents in 1990, they have fallen to a 20 percent minority in 2001. A similar process has also afflicted the Christians of Ramallah.

As radical Muslim influence grew — especially in the three refugee camps within Bethlehem’s municipal boundaries — Christian businessmen were blamed for having maintained business contacts with Israel and for allegedly selling land to Jews, a crime that carries the death penalty in the Palestinian Authority.

Since the current Israeli incursion into the territories began in late March, the situation has grown even more complex.

Christian residents of the triangle are frustrated that their once-prosperous homes have turned into a battlefield, yet by and large identify with the intifada and the Palestinian Authority.

In other words, the Vatican has had to take into account sentiments not only in the larger Arab and Muslim world, but also the general solidarity with the intifada among Christians in the Bethlehem region.

This leaves Israel little room to maneuver. Its strategy for now is to stay put and continue the siege on the terrorists in the church.

On the face of it, the IDF has more time and patience than the terrorists, whose conditions inside the church are said to be grim. In reality, the longer the standoff continues, the better are the prospects that heavy pressure to let the fugitives go will be brought to bear on Israel.

Discreet negotiations have continued, seeking a way out of the deadlock.

“An agreement could have been reached,” Abu-Nassar said, “but negotiations are stuck here too, because of the stubbornness of Arafat and Sharon.”

Bethlehem has been relatively quiet of late, but the battle of nerves continues.

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