- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

Today marks the eighth day of the standoff between the European Union (EU) and 13 Palestinian militants holed up at the Flamingo Hotel on Cyprus.

Under the agreement that ended the last standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, these "senior terrorists," as Israel calls them, are headed for "temporary" exile in the countries of Europe. But which countries, for how long, and under what conditions are just a few of the sticky questions that have turned some mighty slick diplomacy into one cheap package deal: eight days and seven nights (and counting), all expenses paid, on a sunny Larnaca beach-front. Terror-tourism has arrived.

Certainly, the terrorists have. With the Middle East behind them, however, along with any imminent obligation to stand trial in Israel for attacks that include the January murder of Avi Boaz, a 71-year-old American citizen, and the March suicide bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket, these Palestinian desperadoes have been transformed presto into international refugees. At least, they'll have "refugee status" once enough countries offer them refuge and what likely goes with it: a monthly stipend, shelter, clothing, even possible family reunions. Meanwhile, they are hotel "guests," "living it up," according to Reuters, "on stuffed vine leaves, shrimps and moussaka and room service deliveries of ice cream and coffee." Who says terrorism doesn't pay?

"They are not going to be arrested or detained," declared Josep Pique of Spain, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency. "These people are classified as terrorists by Israel, but there are no outstanding cases against them in Europe." Not yet, anyway. So why the holdup er, delay? One weensy problem is that some EU countries have laws that would seem to bar them from taking in "refugees" accused of planning suicide bombings and carrying out shootings in Israel.

Sounds like a lot of red tape to me. No doubt British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had it exactly right when he said the EU is "very happy" to be hosting the militants but not Britain, mind you. Having provided air travel to Cyprus for the Nativity 13, as well as having sent British prison "wardens" to Jericho to oversee apparently "junior" terrorists whose crimes don't rate a Grand Tour, Britain believes it has done its share. "The important thing is that the EU brokered a resolution of the Bethlehem standoff," Mr. Straw said this week. "This is hugely important in getting the Middle East peace process moving."

Anyway, it got these particular terrorists moving which suits some residents of Bethlehem just fine. It seems that to know this gang was to be terrorized by it, even if you were a Palestinian, and particularly if you were a Palestinian Christian. "Finally the Christians can breathe freely," a Christian mother of four told The Washington Times in an eye-popping account of a two-year reign of terror by Palestinian militants said to have included rape, extortion and murder. "We are so delighted that these criminals who have intimidated us for such a long time are now going away."

Criminals? My, my. And the EU probably thought their new charges just made war on Israeli non-combatants. But there's more. Residents also told the newspaper that two of the 13, Jihad Jaara and Ibrahim Abayat, "took nine Muslims whom they suspected of collaborating with Israel into an apartment near Manger Square and fatally shot them" shortly before the battle that sent the gunmen fleeing to the Church of the Nativity. Israel, not so incidentally, blames Mr. Abayat for the death of Mr. Boaz, an American killed earlier this year. (This fact, and U.S. government interest in determining what role, if any, Mr. Abayat played in the slaying, somehow escapes a lengthy cover-story in Newsweek that focuses on Mr. Abayat as one of "four tales" of the Nativity siege.)

Meanwhile, back at the church, stories are coming out with the dirty wash. Angry Greek Orthodox priests showed The Washington Times empty bottles of whiskey, vodka, cognac, wine even champagne they said had been guzzled by Palestinian gunmen, who, in two weeks, "ate like greedy monsters" through church food stores that one attendant said should have lasted six months. No wonder everybody was so hungry. A priest also showed reporters computers and a television set "dismantled for use as a hiding place for weapons." Indeed, a hugely underplayed story of the siege is an Israeli government assertion that army forces, on being asked by priests to search the church, found no less than 40 "explosive charges" hidden within walls, in corners of rooms and behind closets.

Not that the Europeans, of course, should have to worry about any of this. What's a few explosives among refugees? Besides, Yasser Arafat himself has personally guaranteed that his prize packages will be on their best behavior from now on.

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