- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

From combined dispatches
BETHLEHEM, West Bank An Israeli man and his wife who threatened to blow themselves up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity yesterday over a personal grievance surrendered after a short standoff, military sources said.
"A plastic weapon was found on the man and either he or his wife was carrying fireworks," one Israeli military source said.
Clergymen had initially thought the couple were armed, creating a scare for worshippers in the ancient church that is revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus and has been caught in the cross fire of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The couple had demanded churchmen put pressure on the Israeli government to "return their children," said Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, who took part in resolving the situation.
"We are talking of a couple, a man who is mentally disturbed," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Israeli television.
Palestinian acquaintances identified the man as Haim Habibi, a Jewish Israeli believed to be of Kurdish origin, and his wife as a Polish Christian. They said he had told them Israel was refusing to grant her citizenship and that their children were being held by Israeli social authorities.
Officials dismissed earlier reports that the man's wife seemed to have put something around her waist resembling a bomb belt like those used by Palestinian suicide bombers in a 29-month-old uprising against Israel.
In November 2002, Mr. Habibi, 42, staged a hunger strike inside the church to protest his "persecution" by Israeli authorities. He said at the time he was staging the strike to force Israeli authorities to hand back his two sons, ages 8 and 13.
Three years ago, Mr. Habibi moved with his wife and three children to an area north of Jerusalem under Palestinian authority. At the time he made headlines around Israel after meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who, he said, granted him "political asylum."
Mr. Habibi and his wife holed up inside Mr. Arafat's Muqata compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah last spring when the Israeli army besieged it in a bid to snare wanted militants.
Dozens of Palestinian militants took refuge inside the Nativity church last April to elude Israeli forces storming West Bank cities in response to a spate of suicide bombings.
The standoff was resolved after the militants agreed to go into exile in the Gaza Strip or Europe.

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