Tags: Bethlehem | Church | Dispute | Final | Hours?

Bethlehem Church Dispute in Final Hours?

Monday, 06 May 2002 12:00 AM

The violent stand-off at the church which began April 2 when the Israeli army entered the town, was to have been resolved Sunday night, Palestinian sources said earlier, but Israel denied an agreement had been reached.

The Palestinian sources said that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to deport six of the militants in the church to Italy for four years, and send 40 others to the Gaza Strip.

They also said a top aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is on his way to join the talks and bring a "positive answer from the Palestinian leader."

However, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, Ofir Gendelman, said early Monday morning that Israel and the Palestinian Authority "have made progress towards a framework agreement" to end the stand-off, "but there is no final agreement yet."

Gendelman was reacting to Palestinian reports that said an agreement had been reached.

The Palestinian account sent reporters rushing to Manger Square at midnight, but an Israeli military source told United Press International, "Nothing has been finalized. There are still talks. No one will leave tonight. It will take time."

According to the Israeli army, 123 people are in the Church of the Nativity compound, some armed militants.

When the seige started, more than 200 Palestinians -- civilians and militants -- sought refuge inside the church, joining priests and nuns. Several foreign peace activists made it into the church several days ago in an act of solidarity.

Israeli snipers have killed at least two in the church, including a deaf bell-ringer, and seriously wounded an Armenian monk.

The Israelis moved a crane to overlook the compound in April, from which snipers targeted those inside. They also broadcast loud noises at the church to disorient the holdouts.

The Vatican, the Franciscan Order, and the Greek Orthodox Church have criticized the Israeli actions. The 6th Century church was built over what is believed to have been the site of Jesus Christ's birthplace, making the Israeli actions more controversial.

Israel has demanded the militants face trial or be deported, but said the non-militants can go home.

Despite the Israeli stand, Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's aide, headed to Italy Sunday night to coordinate actions with the Italians and arrange for the arrival of the six Palestinian militants.

Palestinian sources said that among the six Palestian militants that would be deported to Italy is Ibrahim Ebayat, the leader of the Fatah armed wing al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Bethlehem.

One of the militants who sought refuge in the church told UPI that the militants received instructions to leave the church within the next few hours.

Arrangements are underway for taking 46 militants out of the church, exiling six to Italy, and moving the rest of the militants to the Gaza Strip.

The six who would be deported to Italy under the reported agreement, would not be allowed back in the Palestinian territories for four years.

Palestinian sources said that Arafat issued instructions to Palestinian police and security forces to redeploy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip towns to prevent any protest against the deal.

Earlier an Israeli source who insisted on anonymity told UPI that under U.S. pressure to end the showdown at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were close to an agreement.

The source said Palestinians agreed that less than 10 militants would be exiled to Italy, but that Israel wanted 20 deported.

The Palestinians provided a list of the people hunkered down in the church for over a month, and the parties appeared to be considering a compromise case by case, according to the Israeli source.

The Israeli Security Agency has taken over the lead of the Israeli negotiating team, replacing army Col. Marcel Aviv who had commanded troops in the Bethlehem area.

The Palestinians also changed their top representative and appointed Rashid, who is one of Arafat's close confidants.

The CIA -- which stepped in to end the stalemate -- is reportedly applying heavy pressure on both sides to resolve the crisis before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House Tuesday.

The Vatican also has tried to help reach a settlement, and Pope John Paul's special emissary, Cardinal Roger Echegaray, Sunday met with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Earlier he had met with Arafat.

For their part, the Italians are ready to contribute to a settlement but consider it inappropriate to openly offer their hospitality. A well-informed Italian source who insisted on anonymity told UPI, "Italy may evaluate a request that may be presented."

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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The violent stand-off at the church which began April 2 when the Israeli army entered the town, was to have been resolved Sunday night, Palestinian sources said earlier, but Israel denied an agreement had been reached. The Palestinian sources said that Israeli and...
Bethlehem,Church,Dispute,Final,Hours?
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2002-00-06
Monday, 06 May 2002 12:00 AM
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