Inside The Church Of The Nativity - Bethlehem
On Thursday May 2, 2002, twenty three international activists crossed Manger Square in Bethlehem under the noses of the occupying Israeli Defence Force (IDF) to deliver food and medical supplies to those under siege in the Church of the Nativity. Alistair Hillman was amongst the ten activists who remained in the church throughout the rest of the siege. Upon arriving back in the UK he wrote this account for SQUALL....
HOW WE GOT IN
The twenty three internationals were formed into three groups. One group which would enter the church had rucksacks containing food, medical supplies and cigarettes. The food consisted of pasta, rice, tuna, lentils and chocolate. The other two groups had hand held bags full of similar supplies. Each group made its way separately through the Bethlehem alleyways to the area of the church. We then regrouped, and negotiated the last few lanes past several barbed wire barriers.
We had been lucky so far not to have bumped into any of the IDF. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was that the curfew had been lifted and there was more activity on the streets than usual.
Suddenly we found ourselves in the open at the head of Manger Square. The Church of the Nativity sat opposite us; the Gate of Humility through which we planned to enter was 100-200m away. Tanks and armoured personal carriers were parked along the sides of the square and an enormous crane sat in the middle. Two rolls of razor wire were strewn across our path and, if I remember correctly, there were no soldiers except for a small huddle talking to reporters on our left.
We immediately walked rapidly out into the square with our hands raised. The razor wire caused few problems with each strand easily stepped on one after the other. The rucksack group was first and were flanked by the other two groups whose intentions were to deflect any pursuing soldiers.
As it happened, only half-hearted attempts to stop us by hand were made. I assume this was because, for the soldiers, this was no-man's land. Snipers on the surrounding buildings shouted at us to stop but no shots were fired. I can only assume this was because of the presence of the press as on other actions internationals have had warning shots fired at them and indeed have been injured, one I believe by a direct hit.
As we approached the gate, it was opened and the first group ushered in, the two flanking groups formed a protective cordon around the open door as the supply bags were passed through. The gate was closed and the flanking groups left to their fates. Good work and thank you.
THE FIRST HALF HOUR
As we stooped through the four foot high gate of humility my first glimpse into the darkness was of two armed Palestinians, dressed in full flak-suits, crouched down aiming rifles at us as we passed through the gate (or more likely aiming out behind us into Manger Square). As the gate was closed, the small antechamber we had entered plunged into total darkness. In the confused moments to follow, torches were lit, our faces checked then the door to the main church opened. We walked through to a rousing reception from the 150 or so Palestinians waiting on the other side; cheers, handshakes, hugs, laughter and cigarettes were exchanged in what can only be described as a most incredible and chaotic welcome.
Within ten minutes we were sitting with a few representatives of the food distribution committee. We handed over all the supplies. Spokesmen of the various factions present within the church then formally welcomed us. They thanked us and made it clear that we were free to leave at any time and we explained that we intended to stay until the siege was concluded.
It was at this point that it became clear that one of our number was an alien. In the confusion, a corporate journalist for the LA Times who had, presumably, tagged on to the groups in the square or alleyways, had entered with us. We made it clear to the Palestinians that her motives for entering the church were very different from ours but after some discussion they decided it did not represent a problem.
The spokesmen went on to briefly describe who was in the church and the conditions under which they had been living for the past four weeks. We were then taken on a tour of the church.
Before we began, we were warned not to walk past windows that looked out onto the buildings that surround the church. All these windows were barricaded, and the gunshot holes obvious. It was explained that there were IDF snipers on or in most of the surrounding buildings. We were also shown the sniper crane. This crane 100-200m in height, which looked down into church complex, was fitted with a camera and rifle remotely controlled by an IDF soldier on the ground.
The church itself is a complex of courtyards, offices, gardens, halls, priest's quarters, towers and tunnels. We were shown a large office burnt out by IDF incendiary devices. One man had been killed there by sniper fire while fighting the fire. A grenade fired through a window had damaged an ancient door nearby. A statue of Mary which stood above a cloistered courtyard had suffered damage from gunfire. All the windows in the upper reaches of the church were smashed and the walls pockmarked with bullet holes. An ancient fresco high in the roof of the church was visibly damaged. All over the courtyards rubble could be seen which had fallen from the walls. We were shown a bell tower where a few weeks earlier the bell ringer had been shot and killed, and priest quarters that had been gutted by fire. We were led out onto a rooftop area where we were told an IDF assault team, which had come across the rooftops from a neighbouring building, had been repulsed with fatalities on both sides. The blood was still evident on the floor.
The damage to the church was great but don't misunderstand me, I have no great love of buildings, holy or otherwise. I include this information because it is claimed that the Palestinians defiled the church and wrecked it inside; this is untrue, nearly all, if not all the damage to the church was caused by the IDF. I saw no evidence of missing artefacts in the church or damage in the areas where the Palestinians were living. It is true that there was a bit of a mess, but then what can you expect from 150 to 200 people in a siege situation, and as the days went on it was clear that this mess was minimised by frequent cleaning and reorganisation.
WHO WAS IN THERE?
Altogether, there were about 180 people inside the church, but it is difficult to be accurate as everyone was spread throughout the complex. There were thirty priests from the Armenian, Franciscan and Greek Orthodox traditions who share the church in an uneasy alliance of faiths. Of the approximately 150 Palestinians, about two thirds were civilians the remaining third armed. All those present were adult males excepting a handful of nuns and the three female international activists. It was clear that all those present were there of their own accord and that early reports of a hostage situation were totally unfounded.
The Palestinians had entered the church on the first day of the Israeli occupation of Bethlehem. They had done so for protection, fearing for their lives. To be male, and between the ages of 15 and 50, is to be a potential target. The IDF surrounded the church and the siege began.
The Israeli government were keen to portray the church as a nest of Palestinian militants and terrorists. However, firstly, there were definitely a large number of civilians. Secondly, the armed men were mostly composed of the Palestinian Authority police and security forces that were legally in control of central Bethlehem under the internationally recognised Oslo Accord. The remaining armed men were members of the various factions resisting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. It would be naïve of me to suggest that there was no one in the church who was involved in the suicide bombings, however, I saw/heard no evidence of this (as one would expect).
WHAT WAS THE CONDITION OF THOSE INSIDE?
The Palestinians had not eaten properly for weeks. Many were gaunt in the face and all looked thin. Most people spent the day lying down due to a lack of energy and a desire to conserve their resources. There were a few people who were obviously ill having become run down and open to disease. One man was falling in and out of consciousness and occasionally having fits. It is testimony to the strength of the Palestinian people that throughout this hardship their morale remained high.
There were also wounded men present. The priests would take anyone who desperately needed hospital treatment out of the church. However, if there was any possibility of remaining in the church, this was the preferred option due to fear of ill treatment at the hands of the Israeli authorities. One man had a bullet wound to his leg; the broken bone could clearly be seen. This wound was treated with first aid equipment and was remarkably clean but it was clear that hospital treatment was desperately required.
THE DEAD AND WOUNDED
Over the course of the five weeks, eight people were shot and killed, and twenty or so wounded. The IDF claim they shot only at armed men who represented a threat. However, by their own admission, the IDF shot two by mistake, one of whom was the bell ringer. We were told by the Palestinians that the sniping was totally indiscriminate. Given the nature of the extensive damage to the church and the IDF's admission of mistakes, I believe that the IDF were totally indiscriminate.
The sniper crane caught out many Palestinians. The crane afforded the IDF a view into the otherwise invisible courtyards of the church. This crane was routinely raised, lowered, and moved. People would get used to a habitual safe route around the complex, which would suddenly be rendered dangerous. It was in this way that many of the deaths and injuries occurred.
While we were there, one man was shot. We had been speaking with the man the day before in the place where he was shot. He was very friendly and generous towards us. He was the father of eleven children. The IDF claim he had been pointing a gun out of the church. The Palestinians claim he was hanging his washing out to dry. He was badly injured having been shot in the lung and was taken outside the church by the priests. We later heard he died shortly after leaving the church.
THE FOOD SITUATION
As has been said, food and medical aid had been denied the Palestinians for the duration of the siege. Some supplies had been delivered by ourselves, other international groups and Palestinian women from Bethlehem. However, most attempts to deliver supplies had been repelled by the IDF using gunfire and concussion grenades. The food stores the Palestinians possessed consisted mainly of the supplies they had taken in with them.
Food was distributed by a central committee, which arranged the cooking of one meal a day. Most days a typical meal for one person would consist of between half and one cup of a weak spiced soup containing maybe five pieces of pasta or a sprinkling of rice, a few leaves and perhaps 10-20 lentils. On sparse days, some people would cook up a weak salty soup of mustard leaves found in the gardens, and others would fry lemon leaves until edible.
After a delivery, the first meal would be good in order to raise health and morale. While we were there, three deliveries were made: our delivery; the one and only token effort by the Israelis that included Pot Noodles (?) (enough for 10 people as an obvious press stunt); and a delivery by Bethlehem women. The week we were there was an exceptional week in terms of deliveries.
It has been claimed in the press that large stores of food were found in the church. However, our reports of minimal food were true. Supplies were obviously being rationed because the siege could have lasted much longer than it did. Also, there was some evidence of the hoarding of "goodies" by the armed factions, but I personally would prefer the people who are running around with the guns to be eating the Halva: low blood sugar and accidents are highly correlated. Given the situation, I think the food distribution was remarkably fair, the ill and wounded fed as well as could be, and it certainly did not appear that "the armed men were letting the civilians starve" as had been claimed in the press.
THE LAST FEW DAYS
The last few days were very exhausting. Time and time again, the negotiations appeared to be a few hours from closing and then would break down. Spirits within the church would be raised with the hope of evacuation occurring by the evening, early hours of the morning, midday, etc.
One event of note occurred a few days before the end when we were asked to leave by a Palestinian "go-between" negotiator. He claimed the negotiations had finished, that we were to leave immediately, and that the Palestinians would leave one hour later after us. We were in contact with a representative in the compound in Ramallah who was in direct contact with Yasser Arafat. We were told that we certainly should not leave as the negotiations were in no way closed.
Italy was not accepting the exiles and no agreement had been reached as to how the weapons in the church would be decommissioned. The "go-between" spread rumours and caused a situation where it appeared we were deliberately holding up the proceedings. Tensions between us and some of the Palestinians were high. However, those we had most contact with were aware of the reality of the situation and defended us and our decision to stay.
Later that day, our consulates applied a similar pressure. I explained that they were misinforming me, deliberately or otherwise, and that they should not bother to contact me anymore. By nightfall the information was out in the general press concerning Italy's refusal to accept the exiles and tensions dropped.
Next day, many Palestinians thanked us for not leaving and seemed aware of the trickery that had been attempted. Exactly who was to blame for this incident is hard to ascertain but given the vast array of interests involved in the situation that is hardly surprising, but then, that's politics. We were lucky to have contacts we could trust both inside and outside the church which enabled us to make the right decision for the people in the church and to avoid the political wrangling.
During the last few days, we decided not to comment to the press on either the content of the negotiations, the rumours of solutions that flew around the church, or the mood within the church in detail. We thought this could only negatively impact on the negotiations and that the continual rumours of an imminent close could well have been a deliberate ploy to psychologically exhaust the Palestinians.
THE CLOSING HOURS
At dawn, on Friday 10th May, the final preparations to leave the church were being made. People were saying their farewells. Out of respect for the Palestinians we refused to speak with the press, much to their annoyance. The thirteen who were to be exiled to Cyprus were first to leave. They left one at a time and we watched as they left the Gate of Humility and walked through a metal detector and on into the hands of the IDF. Next, were the twenty six who would be exiled to Ghaza, followed by the rest of the Palestinians. Finally it was our turn, and it was at this point that we refused to leave.
This decision was based on strong advice from Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. Under the terms of the agreement, once all the Palestinians had left the church, and an international team had entered the church, checked it for stragglers and collected the weapons, the IDF must leave Bethlehem. We were not part of this agreement. Thus, if we waited, we would be able to leave the church, avoid arrest, and go on to the refugee camps in Bethlehem. Unfortunately the priests remaining in the church did not share this view. After a couple of awkward hours the priests allowed the Israeli police into the church to arrest us. We were deported and banned from Israel for ten years.
THE NATURE OF THE POLITICAL SOLUTION
The political solution under which the siege was lifted was brokered by an international team of negotiators under strong pressure from the US. Thirteen of the most wanted were exiled temporarily to Cyprus before a decision was made as to which European country or countries would accept them on a permanent basis. A further twenty six were exiled to the Ghaza Strip. The remaining Palestinians would be taken into custody and interrogated before being released.
The initial aim of the negotiations was for the Palestinians inside to walk free. The IDF had no jurisdiction because they were illegally occupying Bethlehem. Under the internationally recognised Oslo Accord, the town was classified as Area A. This meant the Palestinian Authority (PA) had full jurisdiction over military and civil matters. It became clear that this would not happen so the Israeli government were asked to provide a list of those inside who were wanted. This was countered by the Israeli government requesting a complete list of all those inside. The talks faltered for a while until the PA capitulated and a complete list was provided. In reality, the PA had little bargaining power given that the IDF completely surrounded the church and were denying those inside humanitarian aid. The only pressure on Israel came from the US which was demanding a rapid resolution of the crisis.
The solution that was finally arrived at is widely regarded as a sell out. It means that the lives and family connections of those accused and exiled will be shattered, without trial, merely on the strength of Israeli accusation.
DID THE ACTION ACHIEVE ANYTHING?
Our intentions were as follows: To provide food and medical supplies.
To act as international observers of the conditions within the church and encourage international pressure for food and medical aid to be supplied.
To discourage the IDF from firing upon the church or ending the siege by storming the church.
To encourage international pressure for a solution to the siege.
We certainly managed to bring in food and basic medical supplies, and also one of our number was a trained nurse whose help was much appreciated. We were able, via mobile phones, to report the conditions in the church to the press and we also contacted our consulates to request their aid in pressuring the IDF to allow supplies into the church. Although one token food parcel was allowed, it must be said, as you would expect, that political pressure was either not forthcoming or failed to get aid through.
Our presence in the church had a dramatic effect on the IDF's nightly bombardment of the church. Every night before we arrived, the IDF would routinely fire at the church, use concussion grenades, play high volume disorienting noise (barking, white noise, alarms, etc.) into the church, and shine high power lights through the windows. After we arrived, this stopped completely for the remaining duration of the siege. This greatly increased the morale of the Palestinians and we were told that we were thanked by family members outside the church who now felt that those inside the church were safer because of our presence. It is possible that we saved lives by preventing indiscriminate sniping, however, one man was shot and killed while we were there so it is very difficult to establish if this is the case.
I personally doubt that we were instrumental in preventing the church being stormed. Although this is possible, I believe that storming the church was politically impossible for the Israeli government. It is true that they had tried a minor incursion in the first fortnight but I think that this was more than likely a test of strength. Basically, the preferred IDF method of dealing with siege situations which involves literally bulldozing resistance, civilians and all, was just not applicable to the holiest site in Christendom.
Although I think that we did speed up the timing of the eventual political solution (because we were an additional political embarrassment), it is possible that we were a hindrance. I certainly do not think that we had any influence on the content of the agreement that was signed.
WERE WE SUPPORTING TERRORISM?
This is a criticism that has been levelled at us. All I can say is no. We were in the church as international observers to feed and protect the civilians and security forces that had taken up arms against the illegal occupation. I condemn terrorism whether perpetrated by individuals or a state. Whereas the Israeli government likes to portray its acts as a righteous reaction to terrorism, it is clear to me that both the state of Israel and some Palestinians are engaged in terrorist acts that I find abhorrent. In a complicated situation like this, humanitarian aims should not suffer because of an inability to engage with the complexities of the situation. Wars are ugly and complex things, and they just happen to be where humanitarian aid is most often needed.
While governments attempted a political solution to the siege and the NGO's waited for permission to act, those inside were left to rot. Individual action by international activists and the Palestinian women of Bethlehem managed to ease the situation for those occupying the church.