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Conditions deteriorate under Bethlehem siege


Conditions inside the besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem are growing increasingly desperate, sources inside and outside the church report. Going into its third week, the standoff between the Israeli Defense Force and the 250 Palestinians holed up inside the church along with 45 monks, nuns and priests seemed at press time little closer to resolution than when it began in early April.

The crisis is taking a toll on both those inside the church and without. Bethlehem residents living near Manger Square, where the church is located, continue to live under curfew. The Israeli army has said it will continue its siege, which began April 3, until it captures about 30 men inside the church whom the army says are wanted as terrorists.

Reached by telephone April 16, Franciscan Fr. Amjad Sabbara, parish priest at St. Catherine’s Church, the Latin church that adjoins the 1,400-year-old Orthodox basilica enshrining Christ’s birthplace, said the most serious problem for all those at the Church of the Nativity is water. The Nativity complex, which includes Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian monasteries in addition to the basilica, has one well. With some 250 more people now living there, water is running low. So far, the Israelis have permitted the delivery of a crate with 20 bottles of water, but no food. Sabbara reported that those inside the church are living on one meal a day.

“Fifteen days like this are very hard,” Sabbara said.

A youth who escaped from the Church of the Nativity April 15 provided a fuller picture of the squalid conditions inside the church. In an article printed in The New York Times April 17, 16-year-old Jihad Abdul Rahman said cold and the stench from rotting bodies and gangrenous wounds drove him from the church. There was no water for washing and only one toilet for the 250 Palestinians taking shelter inside the church, Rahman said.

Dwindling supplies of food and water are not the only problems those inside the church are contending with. The Israeli army is exerting psychological pressure by blasting loud music and shrieking cries at night as well as intermittent demands to those inside the church to give themselves up.

“It’s the Noriega technique,” said Bethlehem resident Br. Kenneth Cardwell, referring to the tactics the U.S. government adopted in its efforts to dislodge former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from the Vatican embassy in Panama City where he sought refuge in 1989. “They play really repulsive music very loudly.”

Located a half-mile away at Bethlehem University and speaking with machinegun fire in the background and a view of the Church of the Nativity in front of him, Cardwell said he and other members of the Christian Brothers community there remain under curfew and are kept awake by the frequent disruptions staged by the Israeli army.

“They broadcast loud commands to surrender in the middle of night. They explode huge explosive charges and then lesser flash-bangs I call them. We’re a half-mile away and we wake up five, six times a night with this racket. There are blimps with a cable below. There’s been a drone flying overhead all day today. Yesterday colored gasses wafted across the square,” Cardwell said. He added that a box dangling from a large crane the Israeli army has brought into or close by Manger Square “gave a laser light show the other night and that was pretty exciting.”

As disruptive as the situation in Manger Square is to residents, Br. David Scarpa, director of teaching development at Bethlehem University, said most people in Bethlehem are probably more concerned about their own situation.

“Telephone wires are down,” Scarpa said. “The breaks in curfew are uncertain. A lot of the water mains were broken. We’re in a semi-arid area, so water is extremely precious. Nobody is able to get out to repair them. People who have mistakenly left their homes have been shot. There’s been a lot of gratuitous damage.”

On April 15, a consortium of five Christian organizations delivered food to Bethlehem residents. Tom Zimmerman, assistant country representative for Catholic Relief Services in Jerusalem, one of the contributing Christian organizations, said the convoy was not allowed access to the Church of the Nativity, though Zimmerman said it’s clear that those inside the church are running out of food. A request by an outside party for food to be delivered to the church was made to Catholic Relief Services two days later but was then withdrawn several hours afterwards, said Zimmerman, who added that the agency was willing to go to the church on a moment’s notice.

The Christian relief effort is being directed throughout the West Bank, where Zimmerman said conditions remain very difficult. He described random shooting of civilians, including women and children, and said that ambulances were still being prevented from evacuating the wounded. Palestinian clinics and hospitals need medicines for patients, he said.

The Israeli Defense Force has given no indication of when it plans to withdraw from Bethlehem. Scarpa said the problems would not be over when the Israeli army leaves.

“It will take a long, long time to recover. And at the same time there will be very strict cordons around the town. This is the most serious problem in terms of developing the economy according to the World Bank and the United Nations,” said Scarpa. With tight travel restrictions in place, Scarpa said, staff worry that students may not be able to get to the university even after Israeli troops leave. “We’re concerned about what may happen to this university,” Scarpa said.

Scarpa said all the computers of the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem have been destroyed in what he called a deliberate attempt by the Israeli government to destroy the Palestinian economy and the Palestinian Authority.

“Yesterday in Ramallah, the central bureau of statistics, all that data was destroyed. They’ve done the same in hospitals. We were quite lucky not to have information destroyed here,” Scarpa said.

“The situation for Palestinians is far, far worse than before the peace process started,” he said. “All of the Palestinian cities and towns that have been given their autonomy are surrounded by checkpoints so the Israelis have far more control of the Palestinian cities than they had when they were in them. Most Palestinians feel they’ve been tricked. They expected freedom and security, and what has actually happened is that any attempt to develop the economy has been prevented.”

Cardwell said, “We watch on TV the great support Israel is receiving from the Jewish people in the United States. If they only knew what this government is doing to the Palestinian people, they would repent in dust and ashes. American Jewry has a very high sense of moral responsibility for the widow, the stranger and the orphan, and they just are blind to what the Israeli government is doing.”

Margot Patterson, NCR senior writer, visited Bethlehem in mid-March.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002