SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
BETHLEHEM, West Bank The Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity and later deported by Israel seized church stockpiles of food and “ate like greedy monsters” until the food ran out, while more than 150 civilians went hungry.
They also guzzled beer, wine and Johnnie Walker scotch that they found in priests’ quarters, undeterred by the Islamic ban on drinking alcohol.
The indulgence lasted for about two weeks into the 39-day siege, when the food and drink ran out, according to an account by four Greek Orthodox priests who were trapped inside for the entire ordeal that ended Friday.
About 30 priests, monks and nuns, and more than 150 Palestinian civilians, who ran inside on April 2 to escape a gunbattle between Israelis and Palestinians, remained inside the church with the armed militants for more than five weeks.
A church helper, who gave his name as Milad, said the quantity of food consumed by the gunmen in the first 15 days should have lasted for six months.
As they feasted and boozed, Palestinian civilians subsisted on a meager diet, with barely enough for a single meal a day.
Conditions improved somewhat for the civilian refuge seekers when the governor of Bethlehem intervened and partially succeeded in reallocating food supplies, priests and others witnesses said.
Angry Orthodox priests yesterday showed two reporters about 20 empty bottles of whiskey, champagne, vodka, cognac and French wine on a kitchen shelf and on the floor of two rooms.
“They should be ashamed of themselves. They acted like animals, like greedy monsters. Come, I will show you more,” said one priest, who declined to give his name.
He gestured toward empty bottles of Israeli-brewed Maccabi beer and hundreds of cigarette butts strewn on the floor.
The priest then took the reporters to see computers taken apart and a television set dismantled for use as a hiding place for weapons.
“You can see what repayment we got for ‘hosting’ these so-called guests,” said Archbishop Ironius, another cleric, as he showed reporters the main reception hall of the Greek Orthodox Monastery.
“All the media concentrated on the Franciscan [Catholic] quarter, where little damage was done,” the archbishop said. “Why? The Franciscans actually let the gunmen in, then guided the gunmen to our rooms.”
Archbishop Ironius showed onlookers where the militants had broken in to the monks’ quarters by smashing locked doors while, he said, the monks were praying downstairs.
“The Franciscans then blocked their own rooms’ doors with iron bars,” Archbishop Ironius said.
The 39-day siege ended Friday under a deal in which 13 Palestinian fighters were sent to exile in Europe and another 26 were sent to Gaza, where they were received as heroes.
While in the church, the top Palestinian gunmen slept on comfortable beds in the elegant apartment of Father Parathaious, while others rested on mattresses there and elsewhere under high-quality woolen blankets.
The civilians slept on cold tile floors in the main church downstairs.
“It’s a shame, the mess they made and the way they kept the food. I’m not proud of what they did, even though as a Palestinian I sympathize with their cause of a liberated homeland,” said Milad, 15.
The gunmen belong to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, part of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization.
Before Mr. Arafat visited the church yesterday, Palestinian security officials ordered a thorough removal of all debris and a total cleanup.
But prior to Mr. Arafat’s arrival, the reporters were shown the room belonging to Father Vasareillon, where a key Al Aqsa leader, Nabil Abayat, was fatally shot.
While inviting the reporters inside, the priests refused to allow three young members of Mr. Abayat’s extended family into the room, fearing they would insist it became a Muslim shrine to their fallen colleague.
The scene in the room was grim. Seven gunmen had sheltered there, said another young church helper, and Mr. Abayat had died when a bullet ricocheted off a radiator.
Pools of his blood had stained the bed on which he had collapsed.
Priests pointed to numerous bullet holes that appeared to have been fired from inside the room.
Wine bottles and a Johnny Walker Red Label whisky bottle lay empty on a bedside table with cooked rice splattered on the floor.
Another top gunman from the militant Abayat clan was fatally shot 10 days ago close to a well that the Palestinians had used to hide their weapons.
Another four gunmen died during the exchanges of fire and sniping, as well as a mentally retarded bell ringer who, the Israelis say, ran toward soldiers, ignoring orders to stop.
Several Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded in the exchanges of gunfire during the five-week siege.
The Orthodox priests and a number of civilians have said the gunmen created a regime of fear.
“Their word was law,” said one civilian, “and they told us civilians who left the church would either be shot by the Israelis or dealt with later by the gunmen’s comrades.”
Even in the Roman Catholic areas of the complex there was evidence of disregard for religious norms.
Catholic priests said that some Bibles were torn up for toilet paper, and many valuable sacramental objects were removed.
“Palestinians took candelabra, icons and anything that looked like gold,” said a Franciscan, the Rev. Nicholas Marquez from Mexico.
“We were told later that they gave them back.”
The gunmen and civilians who emerged on Friday went through metal detectors, revealing no stolen objects.