- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Twenty-six Palestinian civilians and police emerged one by one yesterday from the Church of the Nativity. It was the largest group yet to leave one of Christianity's holiest shrines since the monthlong standoff began between Israel's army and a group of armed militants inside.
In the West Bank town of Jericho, U.S. and British security specialists toured the local prison in another step in a U.S.-backed deal designed to release Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from months of Israeli confinement.
Six Palestinians wanted by Israel and holed up in Mr. Arafat's besieged headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah would be moved to the Jericho prison under U.S. and British supervision, paving the way for the Palestinian leader to leave his compound. Palestinian officials said the prisoner transfer could take place within 24 hours, but Israel said the two sides had not agreed on a timetable.
U.S. and British security specialists met with Palestinian officials in Ramallah late yesterday to hammer out the technical details of the prisoner transfer.
Yarden Vatikay, an adviser to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said Israel would not withdraw tanks from Mr. Arafat's compound until the defense minister received word from U.S. officials that the prisoners were in Jericho.
The situation on the ground remained volatile.
[Three Palestinians, including a 2-year-old girl, were killed within a span of four hours in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on the border with Egypt, Palestinian hospital sources told Agence France-Presse early today.
[Ahmed Abu Khepleh, 21, was struck in the head by machine-gun fire while at home before dawn today, said Dr. Ali Mussa, director of Rafah hospital.
[In the same neighborhood, Bilal al-Derbi, 22, was taken to Rafah hospital, where he was listed in "very serious condition" after bullets hit him in his home, Dr. Mussa said.]
Israeli tanks completed their pullout of the West Bank town of Hebron, the military said, after a two-day incursion begun in response to a deadly shooting attack on a nearby Jewish settlement. The military said 150 Palestinians, including 52 wanted men, were arrested. Nine Palestinians, including six civilians, were killed during the raid.
The Hebron pullback was likely to smooth the way for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned White House visit next week.
In Bethlehem, the Palestinians left the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, through a low-slung opening known as the "Door of Humility." The group was made up of civilians and Palestinian police, none wanted by Israel. One was carried on a stretcher.
The Israeli military later released 24 Palestinians at Beit Jalla hospital, next to Bethlehem, witnesses said. A senior Palestinian officer was released earlier, they said. An army statement said one Palestinian was taken to an Israeli hospital for treatment.
The Rev. Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan priest, had escorted the men, most in their teens and early 20s, into Manger Square. With some soldiers on the square crouching and pointing their weapons at the Palestinians, the men held open their jackets to show they were not armed. The Palestinians moved toward an armored bus, where another soldier checked their names off a list of those believed to have been in the church and offered them oranges.
A Palestinian in the compound, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the men decided to leave because conditions were increasingly difficult, with food running low. All Palestinians emerging so far from the compound denied that they had been held hostage by the militants.
Palestinians and clergy holed up in the church give different reasons for why they will not leave. The gunmen fled to the holy site to escape invading Israeli troops. The Palestinian policemen and civilians said they wanted to show solidarity for the Palestinian cause and did not want to be seen as surrendering to Israel. Some Palestinians said they feared being shot by Israeli soldiers if they left the church.
"All of us are sons of one nation," Mazen Abu Ali, a policeman still in the church, said by cell phone. "We can't leave each other to die just because some of us are accused of crimes."
Estimates of the number of Palestinian gunmen, policemen, civilians and Christian clerics in the church have ranged between 200 and 240.
The standoff began April 2 when Israeli troops invaded Bethlehem in search of Palestinian militants. About 75 people have emerged from the church.
Israel says all inside are free to go except the 20 to 30 gunmen whom it wants to arrest or send into exile. The Palestinians have rejected the Israeli proposal, saying the gunmen should be allowed to go to the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.
Israeli police arrested two Israelis on suspicion of planning attacks against Palestinians, Israeli media reported yesterday. Most details were kept secret by a court order.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide