- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Hunger and thirst took its toll on more than 200 Palestinians and priests inside the Church of the Nativity amid fresh shooting yesterday and the surrender of four more Palestinians to Israeli troops.
In negotiations to end the 24-day standoff, Israel proposed sending into permanent exile a half-dozen militants who are accused of orchestrating terrorist attacks. They are among more than 200 people, including about 30 armed Palestinian fighters, who have occupied the church since April 2.
Salah Ta'amri, the leader of the Palestinian negotiating team, is to meet Yasser Arafat today in Ramallah to discuss the latest Israeli offer to end the standoff.
Two Palestinians inside the compound were seriously wounded by Israeli fire yesterday. They were evacuated and given medical treatment, the Israeli military said.
Conditions within the church compound have grown rank and difficult, said Fouad Hassan Al-tam, 19, one of the nine young Palestinians who were allowed to leave the church Thursday evening. One remained in Israeli custody yesterday.
He said the Palestinian gunmen inside are willing to stay as long as it takes until a deal is reached.
"Of course they will stay there. They are not afraid," said Mr. Al-tam, 19, who was closely questioned by Israeli soldiers for four hours after his surrender.
When they left the church, they carried out the decomposing corpses of two gunmen killed early in the standoff.
Surrounded by his family, Mr. Al-tam recounted his 23 days in the church.
"We talked and we told stories and we played cards and we had political discussions," he told reporters, as relatives passed by to kiss his cheeks.
"The priests took good care of us, gave us food, cared for the injured, and they cleaned up the church."
Mr. Al-tam said the two bodies were kept in a small grotto below the church floor, but the odor did not bother him because "they are [martyrs], and they have only a good smell. That is how I thought of it."
Mr. Al-tam , an auto mechanic, lives with his extended family in the nearby Dehaishe refugee camp, a squalid concrete ghetto on the edge of Bethlehem.
He was walking home on the afternoon of April 2. When Israeli soldiers started shooting, everyone ran toward Manger Square, he said.
He said that clerics and local politicians held open church doors and pulled people inside.
"I was close to the square, and people were screaming 'run, run,'" he recalled. "The shooting was so intense, and then I found myself in the church."
Inside were more than 200 Palestinians, some injured. They quickly sorted themselves into groups of 15 to 20, on the basis of which Bethlehem neighborhood they came from.
But from the beginning, food was scarce, with people getting one daily meal of rice or vegetables, and bottled water was carefully rationed.
At first, there was water in the well, electricity to recharge cell phones, and a relatively decent night's sleep.
But as time wore on, living conditions plummeted.
Mr. Al-tam said that at first they would go into the church garden to pick lettuce, beans and other greens, but rooftop snipers made that dangerous.
One of the most difficult aspects of life inside the church, he said, was going to the toilet.
The men inside would have to go to the courtyard, where snipers and an Israeli surveillance balloon captured every move.
An angular man, Mr. Al-tam said he lost 13 pounds in three weeks.
But he also appeared to have enjoyed his stay, even perking up when he told of the Israeli army's psychological operations, such as playing loud sound effects and music all night to keep them awake.
"When you get tired enough, you sleep," he said, noting that his group slept, three to a blanket, around the side walls of the main basilica, between the pillars and the outer walls.
Mr. Al-tam flatly contradicted the complaints by Armenian monks who left the church earlier this week.
At least one of the monks accused the Palestinians of looting the church, breaking crosses and other religious articles, and generally desecrating the ancient church, parts of which date to the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine.
But Mr. Al-tam denied it all, saying that the only damage done to the church was committed "by Israeli soldiers."
However, he did acknowledge that Palestinian militia members are among those holed up inside the church, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born.
He said they have at least 150 to 200 firearms, mostly military rifles, and "plenty" of ammunition left.
Religious orders from around the world have denounced Israel's surrounding of the church, and a group of Christian orders this week unsuccessfully petitioned the Israeli High Court to order a withdrawal on humanitarian grounds.

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