- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2002

LONDON Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has ordered a group of around 200 militant gunmen, Palestinian police and civilians holed up inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity complex to refuse any deal for resolving the standoff, the governor of Bethlehem said in a telephone interview from inside the church last night.
"Our instructions from president Arafat were very clear," Bethlehem Gov. Mohamed el-Madani said on a cellular phone reaching the end of its batteries. "We cannot negotiate anything with the Israelis. We are staying until there is a solution, which is that the Israelis withdraw their troops not just from around the church but from all of Bethlehem and go back home."
The governor said his last instruction had come in a cell-phone conversation Thursday from one of Mr. Arafat's closest aides at the chairman's besieged Ramallah headquarters.
He added: "I've not spoken to them since then, but there's no need for any further instructions, as we have our orders."
A Vatican negotiating mission has met with no success. Israeli jeeps yesterday were driving around the huge church complex with megaphones, calling on the gunmen to "surrender and you will be treated peacefully."
One of the few priests evacuated from the church told Israeli television yesterday that gunmen had shot their way in, and that the priests, monks and nuns were essentially hostages.
About 150 armed men, a number of them alleged by Israel to be on their "most wanted" list of terrorists and bombers, blasted their way through a steel door into the church, a clergyman inside the complex said using its only still-working telephone.The church is on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.
The priest, who chose not to supply his name, declined to call the clergy "hostages," but repeatedly said in fluent English: "We have absolutely no choice. They have guns, we do not."
He added: "We tried to get the Palestinian gunmen to leave by a back door, but they refused, saying they could be shot by the Israelis.
They have taken up security positions inside our living quarters, and they are refusing to meet our repeated requests to leave at least some part of our premises."
A senior Israeli military official, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, told journalists yesterday that his forces considered the priests inside the church to be hostages, and added: "We are reserving the right to free these hostages when the right time comes."
But he added: "Palestinian terrorists are using holy places to shoot at our forces, because they know that we are not going to retaliate toward holy places."
The priest interviewed from inside the church complex said that around half the 150 armed men were from the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, part of the fighting forces of Fatah, the dominant Palestinian movement founded and presided over by Mr. Arafat, while the rest were employees of the Palestinian Authority's security services.
But Anton Salman, a lawyer who went into the complex together with the governor two to three hours after the gunmen had entered, said yesterday via cell phone that no churchmen were being held hostage, and that the convent staff had been dishing out food equally to civilians, church staff and gunmen. They were surviving on a diet of rice and spaghetti, and drawing water from wells within the church compound, he said.
He maintained that Israel had refused to allow Red Cross food supplies to be brought in to the complex.
One of the leaders of the Al Aqsa brigade, Jihad Jearah, 28, said on Saturday by cell phone: "We are prepared to fight to the last man. Everyone here is prepared to become a shaheed [martyr]."
Mr. Jearah, who was shot in the leg as he ran into the church complex, was featured a week ago in a British television documentary showing how his group prepared bombs and how it went about recruiting suicide bombers.
Fatah in Bethlehem has claimed credit for several suicide bombings this year, including the killing by 18-year-old Mohamed Daraghmeh of five children and four women in Jerusalem as they completed their Sabbath meal.
The Al Aqsa group has carved out a fearsome reputation in Bethlehem. Just before Israeli soldiers entered the town, it killed two suspected collaborators, dragging their bodies through Manger Square, and then killed six more.
Local inhabitants say the group has conducted a long-running extortion racket forcing Christian shopkeepers and manufacturers of holy items and souvenirs to pay protection money. A 70-year-old cafe owner in Manger Square was recently shot in the face by an Al Aqsa gang member.
The Al Aqsa fighters, who often drive luxury cars stolen from Israel proper, used to sweep into the Christian hillside suburb of Bet Jala and fire into the nearby outer Jerusalem suburb of Gilo.
After an Al Aqsa leader was arrested for the suspected rape of a Christian girl last year, his fighters stormed the jail and freed him.

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