- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Twenty-six Palestinian fighters freed from a 39-day siege at the Church of the Nativity entered Gaza to the sound of celebratory gunfire yesterday, vowing to fight against expected Israeli retaliation for the pool-hall suicide bombing that killed 16 Israelis earlier in the week.
Thirteen Palestinian gunmen, also freed from the church in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, spent the day at a seaside hotel in Cyprus, waiting to be split up and exiled in Europe.
For those in Gaza, jubilation was mixed with apprehension.
"Whatever happens to Gaza happens to me. It is my home now," said one bearded man, released from the church and smiling in the bright sunlight. "I am here now."
For three days, Israeli tanks have massed along the border. Ordinary Friday-morning marketing took on an intensity as residents stockpiled food in preparation for a siege. Gunmen patrolled streets, and others readied barricades built from mounds of rubble.
Israeli TV's Channel 2 reported that Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has decided to postpone an attack on Gaza because leaks about the army's plans had eliminated the element of surprise. Israeli officials declined to comment.
Asked about the threat of an incursion into Gaza, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat accused Israel of committing crimes against Palestinians.
"Our people are steadfast and will continue with all their power to defend our holy cities, Christian and Muslim places," he told reporters at his headquarters in the West Bank.
The Palestinian gunmen freed from the church, which they seized to barricade themselves inside more than a month ago, were escorted by bus from the Erez checkpoint to a seaside hotel, where a team of doctors and a swarm of reporters awaited them.
"They told me Gaza was beautiful, but it is more beautiful," said Khalid Salah, 26, who said he once worked in intelligence for the Palestinian Authority. "They are my family here now."
Most of the men had spent their lives in Bethlehem and had never been to Gaza before. It is not yet clear what Mr. Salah and his colleagues will do in this Mediterranean city with a devastated economy and closed borders. But they will not be imprisoned, as the Israelis had once demanded, nor will they necessarily be here for long. Many Palestinians, including political leaders, expect the exile to erode or be repealed when an independent Palestinian state is established.
The other 13 men accused by Israel of committing or masterminding terrorist attacks against the Jewish state are under guard at a hotel in Cyprus until their eventual transfer to a number of undetermined Western European nations that are said to include Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, Ireland and Luxembourg.
The terms of the exile appear to have been left deliberately vague to reach the agreement to end the standoff in Bethlehem. Israel said its troops had withdrawn from the city, the last of six West Bank towns occupied in an operation that began in late March.
On April 2, the Israeli army moved into Bethlehem, and more than 200 persons took over the church, revered by many Christians who believe it is built on the site of the manger where Christ was born. The remainder of those from the church, including priests, nuns and noncombatants, were sent home, except for a group of foreign sympathizers charged by the Israeli Defense Force with entering a closed military zone.
During the siege, at least seven Palestinians were killed in sporadic exchanges of gunfire with Israeli troops, and 22 others, including an Armenian priest, were wounded.
As negotiations over the fighters' fate repeatedly broke down, food stocks dwindled along with cell phone batteries and hygiene. The basilica was said to have been left littered with rubbish. An altar in the Armenian chapel had been used as a bed.
"It was very bad," said Ali Alqan, 26. "At first we lost one or two a day, and one corpse was there for 12 days."
But many of the keffiyeh-clad men who arrived yesterday one of whom leaned out the bus window to fire a rifle at the sky say they will join the local militias now that they are here. "I am a civilian, and I have no weapons," said one bearded man, looking elated despite his pallor. "But if they give me a gun, then I will fight to protect my new home."
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said yesterday in Rome that "there is no plan to conquer Gaza, but to reach points where we have had centers of terror in a very careful and measured way."
Gaza, a narrow strip of land on the Mediterranean, was captured by Israel from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel handed most of Gaza, and parts of the West Bank, to the Palestinian Authority in 1994. But Israel still controls key roads and several enclaves where an estimated 7,000 Jewish settlers live among some 1.2 million Palestinians.

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