- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

JERUSALEM Palestinian documents seized by Israel show that Yasser Arafat financially supported Bethlehem's top gunman, who until his death last year was the leader of a clan that controlled the Church of the Nativity during the standoff with Israeli troops.
Atef Abayat was killed by the Israelis in October 2001.
Members of the Abayat family seized the Church of the Nativity and controlled it during a 39-day siege that ended earlier this month. They were among the 39 Palestinians exiled to Europe or sent to the Gaza Strip, where they received a heroes' welcome.
A one-page document dated July 9, 2001, contained Mr. Arafat's handwritten confirmation of payment of $300 to Atef Abayat.
The payment was authorized by Mr. Arafat at a time when Israel had requested that the Palestinian local leader be arrested on murder charges. Israeli agents killed him by blowing up a stolen car in which he was riding.
Palestinian officials insist payments from Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority were used only for political and social programs.
But another document, dated Nov. 7, 2001, indicates Mr. Arafat's approval for paying the families of "brother commander martyrs" killed fighting Israel.
Topping the list is Atef Abayat, who had at the same time been publicly lionized as a "great martyr" in a speech by Mr. Arafat.
"The documents repeatedly show that Arafat is in day-to-day control of the details of all his organizations, relaying the information for comment to the senior members of his military branches," said Michael Widlanski, who translated many of the documents from Arabic.
The Abayat family is known throughout the biblical city of Bethlehem for terrorizing residents by demanding "protection money" from Palestinian Christians who sell souvenirs to tourists.
During the present Palestinian uprising, members of the family also have taken over homes of Christian families, from which they have fired bullets into the Jewish suburb of Gilo, inviting Israeli retaliation.
During the siege of the Church of the Nativity, another clan leader, Nabil Abayat, was fatally shot inside the church by Israeli snipers.
When the siege ended, nine of the 13 "most wanted" gunmen exiled by Israel to Europe were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which in Bethlehem was controlled by the Abayat clan.
The brigade, which is part of Mr. Arafat's Fatah organization, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing yesterday that killed two Israelis.
Other members of the Abayat family were among 26 Palestinians sent to the Gaza Strip as part of the deal, brokered with the help of U.S. officials, to end the church siege.
Documents detailing a connection between the Bethlehem-based clan and Mr. Arafat had been seized from Orient House, the semi-official Palestinian office in East Jerusalem that Israel shut down last summer.
Israel recently said another batch of documents from Mr. Arafat's Ramallah headquarters showed payments to suicide bombers.
The Palestinians dismissed those documents as forgeries, and U.S. officials who are studying them have yet to say whether they consider them authentic.
On the document detailing the payment to Atef Abayat, Mr. Arafat's distinctive signature is scrawled across the lower left portion of a payment request.
The request was for $2,000, but only $300 was approved. The document was also signed by Kamil Hmeid, the Bethlehem chief of Fatah.
The Palestinian leader also was personally involved in budget requests and operational reports related to planned violence, according to the Orient House documents.
"These documents, many of them signed by Arafat, are more than a smoking gun," said Israeli Interior Minister Uzi Landau. "They are a smoking pen a pen dripping blood held by Arafat."
Mr. Landau said the Palestinian leader "cannot deny these documents that show that he and his top aides planned and financed acts of terror."

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