Entering the Church of Nativity

The Israelis didn’t see it coming. Clearly, after the failure to get people inside on April 28, they must have assumed that the International Solidarity Movement did not pose a threat to their siege of the Church of Nativity. However this time, with a coordinated plan of movement and with contacts inside the Church, ten ISM members made it inside, along with a journalist for the LA Times while 13 working as decoys were arrested by the Israelis.

With small groups moving quickly and quietly to secure a surprise, the ISM broke into several small teams and surged into Nativity Square to the complete befuddlement of the Israeli soldiers guarding the area. While the main road has a large razor wire barrier erected, smaller side alley remained completely unguarded. Too busy hiding behind overturned Palestinian cars, the Israeli soldiers and their nearby Merkava tank were not expecting their entire siege to be turned upside down from behind.

The plan originated on a piece of tagboard with a layout of Nativity Square. The group of about 20 debated back and forth as to which approach would be most successful, and who wished to participate in what. Those unable to risk arrest and possible deportation opted to follow, but hold back and observe the situation. Others volunteered to enter the church, and everyone else served as support. Filtering into Bethlehem, the teams established positions and moved ahead, requesting quiet from all the local Palestinians that passed by.

Coming from the old market, which remains in ruin from the Israeli onslaught that began a month ago, we found that several avenues of approach were more than open to us. The teams were split into potential decoy groups and one 6-person set that was determined and prepared to enter the Church and remain within. As it was however, the Israeli response was so slow that two separate groups made it inside before the Israelis could reach them.

The soldiers’ only quick response was to brush away journalists who had followed the group into Nativity Square. Otherwise, a substantial number of ISM members were able to run ahead and enter through the main door of the Church before the few Israeli soldiers stationed across the Square could catch them. Those not wanting to enter the Church held back and were arrested by the Israeli soldiers. Carried along in the euphoria of the movement, an LA Times photographer also went inside.

The Israelis could do nothing but push back curious journalists. A single smoke grenade was dropped merely to cover the extraction of those ISM members arrested and taken to the Bethlehem Peace Center for holding.

Even the foreign journalists were amazed. One turned and remarked, “this is like a dream.”