Israeli distortions during the siege on the Church of the Nativity

20 May 2002

Context to the siege

On 29 March 2002, Israel began what it called “Operation Defensive Shield”, an unprecedented invasion of Palestinian towns to “defeat the infrastructure of Palestinian terror in all its parts and components” according to the Israeli Cabinet Communique that announced the massive military operation.

At approximately 2:00 a.m. on 2 April 2002, Israeli occupation forces invaded the neighbouring towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights:

“using approximately 250 tanks and armored personnel carriers, F-16 fighter jets, and Apache gunships. At approximately 04:30, they seized full control over the three cities, except the Old Town. In the invasion, which was accompanied by indiscriminate shelling, 60-year-old ‘Aaboud al-‘Ameri, from Bethlehem, a guard of a building in Beit Sahour, was killed.

At approximately 10:15, Israeli occupation forces fired three artillery shells at the house of Khaled Ibrahim ‘Aabda, 38. He and his mother, Sumaia Hussein ‘Aabda, 60, were killed by shrapnel. Israeli forces did not allow the evacuation of the bodies to hospital or their burial. The bodies remained with other residents of the house, including children, in the same room.

At approximately 11:30, Israeli occupation forces shelled Santa Maria Church in al-Madbasa neighborhood. A number of priests and nuns were wounded, including Father Jack As’ad, a Palestinian who holds the Italian citizenship, who was seriously wounded.

In the afternoon, three Palestinian gunmen were killed while confronting an invasion by Israeli occupation forces of a small neighborhood in Bethlehem… In addition, 18-year-old ‘Eissa Da’bous, from Bethlehem, was killed by a live bullet in the head, while he was in front of his house in the same area.”

Trapped between advancing Israeli forces in the center of Bethlehem, approximately 200 Palestinians — mostly civilians and policeman, along with some gunmen from local Fatah militias and Christian clergy — took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, the Christian holy site built over the traditional location where Jesus Christ was born. Palestinians had last sought refuge in the church during Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967.

Anton Salman, a member of the Antonius Society, a humanitarian group in Bethlehem, spoke to CNN about the motivations of those who sought refuge in the church:

CNN/KAGAN: How many people are inside the church?

SALMAN: It’s around 200.

CNN/KAGAN: Are we talking men, women, children?

SALMAN: Yes, mostly men.

CNN/KAGAN: Are they Palestinian gunmen?

SALMAN: They are from the Palestinian police and … mostly from the Palestinian Authority police, who ran away to the Church of the Nativity to implore protection inside the church after [unintelligible] was bombed and shot at by Israeli tanks and soldiers. And they saw their mosque, Umar, which is across from the Church of the Nativity, bombed. They were afraid, and they looked for a place to be secure. So they found the only way; they ran to the church and found a place to stay.

CNN/KAGAN: They not only picked a secure place, they picked one of most holy places in the world to Christians and put that in peril. Do they realize that?

SALMAN: We here understand our history, and that the Church of the Nativity [has been a sacred] place to the people during all wars. … So from this point, they thought that the Church of the Nativity was a safer place to enter and … entered the church looking for protection. They are still inside the church.

(Man details situation in Church of the Nativity, CNN.com, 3 April 2002.)

The siege ultimately lasted for 39 days, from 2 April until 10 May 2002. During the siege, 7 Palestinians were killed and around 40 were injured by Israeli snipers. The siege was finally resolved without further loss of life.

The Church of the Nativity and surrounds

Siege chronology

Material in the following chronology was compiled from weekly reports by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) and first hand reports from peace activists inside the church archived by the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace.

Journalists were largely kept away from the area of the Church, making it difficult to know what was going on.

On 2 April 2002, the siege began.

On 4 April 2002, flares and bullets flew over the center of Bethlehem during an Israeli army attack later in the late evening.

On 5 April 2002 Israeli forces sporadically shelled the Church of the Nativity to force the Palestinians inside to surrender. The bell ringer of the church, Samir Ibrahim Salman (42), was killed by Israeli fire. Israeli forces also destroyed the southern gate of the church and a number of Israeli soldiers moved into its southern yard. Three people were reportedly wounded by Israeli fire.

On 6 April 2002, 20 peace activists were prevented by the Israeli military from bringing food and medicine to 200 Palestinians trapped in the Church of the Nativity. Israeli soldiers aimed a tank gun towards them while they accompanied a Red Crescent ambulance, refused them entry to Manger Square and fired live ammunition into the air above them when they were within 50 yards of the Church of the Nativity. Black smoke poured into the air after a building near the Syrian Church was hit twice by Israeli shells.

On 8 April 2002, Israeli forces surrounding the Church of the Nativity again opened fire at the church, resulting in fire breaking out in the room of one of the priests there. When people inside the church attempted to extinguish the fire, Israeli forces fired at them, killing Khaled Mousa Abu Siam (23) with a live bullet in his head.

On 10 April 2002, at around 6:00 p.m., Ali Farah (60), from Dheisheh refugee camp, was killed by live ammunition in the chest by an Israeli sniper while passing by the Holy Bible College in the center of Bethlehem. Inside the Nativity, Armen Sinanian, an Armenian Orthodox monk, was shot and injured by an Israeli sniper. Israeli flares were fired above the church during the night.

On 11 April 2002, a series of explosions were heard and black smoke was seen eminating from an area near the Church of the Nativity.

On 13 April 2002, at approximately 11:40 p.m., Hassan ‘Abdullah al-Nasman (26), from Jabalya refugee camp, a blacksmith working in Bethlehem, died following Israeli sniper fire. Earlier, the sniper had fired several live rounds from a rifle equipped with a silencer at Palestinians besieged inside the church. Two hit Al-Nasman in the chest. Israeli forces denied passage to medical personnel and al-Nasman bled to death. Wire services reported that Israeli forces took to psychological warfare in an effort to demoralise those holed up in the compound, and deployed a crane hoisting a speaker system emitting high pitch sounds over the Church of the Nativity compound.

On 15 April 2002, Dr. Mousa Abu Humeid, Director General of West Bank hospitals at the Palestinian Ministry of Health stated that Israeli forces deliberately prevented the medical evacuation of Tamer al-Kusba, seriously wounded by a live bullet in the abdomen four days earlier. Abu Humeid said that there were other patients in the Church of the Nativity who were badly in need of medical attention but Israel had not permitted any medical personnel to enter the church.

On 16 April 2002, Israeli occupation forces invaded the Star Hotel near the Church of the Nativity. More than 50 journalists who were reporting from the fifth floor of the hotel were warned against continuing as it may “endanger their lives.” Israeli forces took this measure apparently to prevent media coverage of their attempts to break into the Church of the Nativity. Mousa al-Sha’er, a photographer of Agence France Presse (AFP) told PCHR that the situation was very dangerous since Israeli forces were heavily deployed in the area to monitor journalists. Smoke was seen during the day and flares fired at night in the region of the Nativity. A heavy gun battle was reported during an Israeli military operation in Bethlehem.

On 18 April 2002, smoke was seen billowing in the area of the Nativity.

On 20 April 2002, Israeli forces cut telephone lines into the church.

On 22 April 2002, intimidation of journalists continued. Israeli troops confiscated the Israeli government-issued press cards of 24 journalists and reporters in Bethlehem who were working for foreign televisions and press agencies. Israeli soldiers in a jeep stopped and surrounded the journalists, on their way to the Church of the Nativity. The journalists were forced to return to the Star Hotel. Israeli forces opened fire at the car of another journalist, Mohammed Mousa Manasra (52). According to Manasra, Israeli soldiers in the market area in the centre of Bethlehem fired several live bullets at his car, which was clearly marked as a press car. Manasra was traveling with his family but thankfully no casualties were reported. At approximately 7:30 p.m., Israeli forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas canisters at the Church of the Nativity, setting fire to one of the rooms.

On 28 April 2002, members of the International Solidarity Movement succeeded in reaching the front door of the Church of the Nativity with food. Catching the Israeli soldiers in Manger Square by surprise, they managed to leave the sqaure without being arrested.

On 29 April 2002, an Israeli army sniper positioned on a building near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem fired at 29-year-old Nidal Isma’il ‘Ebayyat, from Bethlehem, who had been blocked inside the church for four weeks, killing him with a live bullet in the chest. ‘Ebayyat was a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

On 2 May 2002, at approximately 12:00 p.m., an Israeli sniper shot 21-year-old Ahmed Mohammed Abu ‘Aabed, a member of the Palestinian Military Intelligence from Khan Yunis, killing him inside the church with two live bullets in his chest and abdomen. Ten international activists, bearing packages of food, darted through Manger Square and entered the Church of the Nativity, stunning Israeli Defense Force troops. 13 decoy activists were caught and detained by troops. U.S. peace activist Larry Hales, who managed to get inside the Church, reported: “Unfortunately the situation inside is much worse than we anticipated. Most of the people are literally starving, having not eaten anything in the last five days, except for a few boiled leaves from a tree in the courtyard.”

On 4 May 2002, an Israeli sniper shot and killed 40-year-old Khalaf Ahmed al-Najajra, from Nahalin village, with a live bullet in the chest, in a courtyard inside the compound of the Nativity. Danish peace activist Allan Lindgaard reported from inside the church that: “The Israelis are shooting at anything which moves in here. They shoot through the windows and at anyone going out to get food. The man that was killed was hit in the yard by a bullet which exploded inside his body. He just wanted to air his clothes.”

On 10 May 2002, the siege ended, following a European-brokered deal that exiled 13 of those inside the church in European countries and another 26 to Gaza. Israeli troops stormed the chuch at 2:40 p.m. and arrested the ten international peace activists still there.

Israeli distortions during the siege

Israel justified what in fact was a five week siege on Bethlehem’s town center with a number of exaggerated claims about the Palestinians trapped inside the church. Due to the Israeli siege, information from inside the church was minimal. Now that the facts are known, it is instructive to look at the Israeli spin:

Distortion #1 - There were 200-250 “armed” Palestinian “terrorists” or “Tanzim people” inside the church:

“On 2 April 2002, upon the entry of IDF forces to Bethlehem, many wanted suspects from all the Palestinian terrorist organizations forced their way into the Church of the Nativity and have barricaded themselves inside the church ever since. The number of terrorists who took over the church is estimated to be around 250, a few of them injured.”

(From “Details Concerning Senior Wanted Suspects from the Palestinian Terrorist Organizations Hiding in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem”, Captured & Wanted Palestinians [sic] Terrorists, Israeli Defence Forces website).

“I understand that what I have just heard is that in the Church of the Nativity there are 200 armed Tanzim people… It hurts us very much when we are placed in a situation, for instance, where people are finding shelter in a church, which they are perfectly entitled to do, but they take 200 weapons into a church as well.”

(Briefing by Ambassador Alan Baker, Foreign Minister Legal Advisor, National Media Center, Jerusalem, 3 April 2002).

“The unacceptable breaking in of some 200 Palestinian armed terrorists into the Church of the Nativity is of common concern to you and to us.”

(Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s message to Pope John Paul II, communicated by the President’s Spokeswoman, 9 April 2002.)

CNN/COSTELLO: We have conflicting reports about that too, about whether the people holed up inside the church were armed or not. Were they armed?

LT. COL. RAFOWICZ: I don’t understanding your question — I am sorry.

CNN/COSTELLO: Are the Palestinians who are holed up in the Church of the Nativity armed? Do they have guns?

LT. COL. RAFOWICZ: All of them are armed with at least Kalashnikovs, (unintelligible) some of them with explosive belts inside the church.

(Transcript of interview with Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, IDF, by Carol Costello, CNN, 4 April 2002.)

Many members of the media repeated these accusations as fact without identifying the source of the ‘information’. On 4 April, CNN anchor Bill Hemmer claimed:

“Based on what we do not know, and that’s quite a bit right now in Bethlehem, here is what we believe we do know. About 200 Palestinian gunmen, again, inside the Church of the Nativity wanted by about 1,000 Israeli troops.”

(Transcript from American Morning with Paula Zahn, CNN, 4 April 2002.)

Again, on 15 April, CNN.com asserted that:

“An estimated 200 armed Palestinians, along with some 40 church workers, have been holed up inside the structure since taking shelter there during an Israeli military incursion on April 2.”

(Church official: No Bethlehem deal in sight, CNN.com, 14 April 2002.)

Even the BBC got in on the act:

“About 200 Palestinians, many of them armed, are still refusing to leave the Church of the Nativity”

(Eyewitness: Bethlehem battle-scarred by Caroline Hawley, BBC correspondent in Bethlehem, 9 April 2002.)

As we now know, just 13 of the Palestinians inside the church, now exiled to Europe as part of the deal, were on Israel’s “wanted list” (according to Israel). A second group of 26, who were ultimately exiled to Gaza, were presumably associated with factions that the Israeli invasion intended to target.

Wire service images show that only a handful of weapons were left behind in the church — exactly what one would expect from the number of Palestinian policemen reported to be among those who sought refuge in the church during the Israeli invasion. Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity is located, has a contingent of Palestinian police permanently on call.

Distortion #2 - That priests, monks and nuns were being held hostage by the Palestinians in the church:

“…the murderers who have commandeered the church and are holding the clergymen hostage.”

(Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Address to the Knesset, 8 April 2002.)

“Prime Minister Sharon noted that he emphasized possible solutions to the issue of the terrorists holed up in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem holding priests and others as hostages.”

(Cabinet Communique, Israeli Cabinet Secretariat, 14 April 2002.)

A May 10th article on CNN.com, Church of Nativity undamaged after standoff, stated:

The clergy disputed that, saying they had stayed inside to provide refuge for the fighters and to protect the church.

“We are staying here, not because of the Palestinians, but we are staying here because this is our house, because we try to protect this place,” said Rev. Cewelalo, a Franciscan priest. “This is our mission and we are convinced that we chose this mission.”

Of course, it should be noted that the majority of clergy in the church are Palestinians themselves. One of the regular tactics of Israeli propaganda is to portray Palestinians as a single homogenous Muslim entity, when the reality is that tens of thousands of Palestinians are Christians, particularly in towns like Bethlehem with major Christian historical sites. By equating Palestinians with Muslims, Israel seeks to exploit Western prejudices against Islam.

Distortion #3 - That Israel didn’t take any action which damaged the church:

“In the particular instance of the Church of the Nativity, the Government of Israel scrupulously ensures that the Church does not become a focus of hostilities. While operations are being conducted in its vicinity, the Church has remained unaffected by the IDF, despite the confirmed presence of armed Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Tanzim terrorists inside the sanctuary. Our objective remains to extricate these armed terrorists, unharmed, from the Church and to this end, our forces continue to refrain from taking actions that may harm the Church or its clergy.”

(Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s message to Pope John Paul II, communicated by the President’s Spokeswoman, 9 April 2002.)

Obviously, the shooting described in the chronology above caused some fire damage to some rooms in the Nativity complex. A Madonna statue in one of the courtyards was damaged by Israeli gunfire. Some of the wire service photos showed bullet damage to the outside of the church. Bethlehem mayor Hanna Nasser, interviewed on CNN on 2 May 2002, commented that:

NASSER: You know, because the quantity of bullets that have been — I mean, shot at the Church of the Nativity, and I have seen this morning somebody who have witnessed this. If you go and see the wall of the (unintelligible), how many bullets there are in the stones of this wall, you can imagine how the fight was so strong. And we have to be very, very, I mean, reasonable. What we have been hearing last night, it couldn’t be, I mean, from the Palestinians alone.

CNN/RODGERS: How seriously is the church damaged?
NASSER: You know, in principle, besieging the church by itself is a big damage to the church.

CNN/RODGERS: I understand. But that’s psychological. I’m asking about the damage from the fire.

NASSER: The damage? There is real damage in the Franciscan side, real damage in the dormitory of the Greek Orthodox Church, damage in the statues of the church, damage in the mosaics inside the church by these bullets that have penetrated into the Church of Nativity. And I hope the day will come when we can go together and see how much the Church of Nativity has been damaged.

(Transcript of interview With Hanna Nasser, Mayor of Bethlehem, by Walter Rogers, CNN Live Today 2 May 2002.)

size>Various witnesses have confirmed that the Palestinians trapped inside the church did not cause any serious damage:

Videotape shot inside the church showed piles of clothing, cooking pots and dishes and piles of bedding and clothes along the walls.

Charles Sennott, who has written a book about the church also said he saw no major damage but did say the church was filthy.

“I came in with the Franciscans who helped with my book,” said Sennott. “The damage is not extensive. There was no serious damage but the basilica is quite a mess.” He described the smell as “horrible,” saying eating utensils and trash were strewn about.

(Church of Nativity undamaged after standoff, CNN.com, 10 May 2002.)

Much has been made in the media of the “smell of urine” inside the church, as if this were somehow indicative of the attitudes of those inside towards the church. The fact is that Israel killed 7 and injured around 40 Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity compound during the siege. Those attempting to enter the gardened courtyards of the church were shot at by Israeli snipers. Those inside had no option but to designate areas of the interior as bathrooms.

In a 4 May 2002 interview, Larry Hales, a U.S. peace activist with the International Solidarity Movement and part of the group that managed to enter the Church of the Nativity during the siege, spoke about this:

CCMEP: Larry! How are you?

Larry Hales: We’re doing good! Our spirits are up. Our spirits had been down, they killed a man today.

CCMEP: A Palestinian man?

LH: Yeah. He was hanging some clothes up to dry that he had washed (the water here comes from a well), and they shot him in the back — from the side.

CCMEP: So he was outside of the church?

LH: Yeah.

CCMEP: Have you been able to get the body out?

LH: Yeah, we got him out. They patched him up, made him comfortable. It took forty-five minutes to get him out. You could kind of tell that he was going to die because he started turning really, really pale. It was crazy. He was really brave, he didn’t make a sound.

CCMEP: Did the internationals take him out?

LM: The monks here—the priests—they took him out. These guys are really something.

Conclusion

Israel’s sniper killing of 7 Palestinians and injuring of around another 40 Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity and its compound — in situations where they were trying to find food to eat, clean their clothes, use the toilet, or were visible through a window inside the Church — represents an unacceptable contempt for the sanctity of this holy place. The damage to nearby churches and mosques during the siege was similarly unacceptable.

Throughout the siege, Israel made much of the fact that the church had been invaded by “terrorists”, yet Israel’s actions throughout the siege were characterised by indiscriminate violence and the violation of the human rights of those trapped inside and of the thousands of residents in the center of Bethlehem, who lived under a punitive curfew. For their part, those inside the church did what they could to minimise their impact on the holy site. US National Public Radio Anne Garrels, who toured the site immediately after the end of the siege, described the grotto marking the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born as “pristine”.

The 5-week siege damaged residential, historic and religious buildings — both churches and mosques — and paralysed the center of Bethlehem. It kept tens of thousands of Palestinians under curfew, and saw 7 people shot dead on one of the holiest sites to Christians worldwide. One can only wonder if the international community would have so readily tolerated this had it been known that only a literal handful of those besieged inside the Church of the Nativity were actually armed and had the media not so readily and carelessly disseminated the untested Israeli claims as inciteful fact.

Related links:

  • Entering the Church of Nativity by Ben Granby, Electronic Intifada Diaries, 2 May 2002.
  • 9 Days Under Seige, an L.A. Times photostory by Carolyn Cole, the only commercial media reporter inside the Church during the siege with text by Eric Page [requires Macromedia Flash].
  • The view from within a hallowed and haggard place, by Carolyn Cole, L.A. Times, 12 May 2002.
  • See also “Inside the Siege of Bethlehem” by Joshua Hammer, Newsweek, 20 May 2002.