Reports that Israel is considering allowing a group of gunmen who were deported in 2002 after hiding inside the Church of the Nativity to return home have left some Christian residents here seriously concerned for their safety. Thirteen of the gunmen were deported to different European countries, while another 26 were expelled to the Gaza Strip. The gunmen, belonging to both Fatah and Hamas, were holed up in the church for 39 days before European mediators reached a deal with Israel according to which the fugitives would be permitted to walk out unharmed.
On Saturday, Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that the deportees would soon be allowed to return to Bethlehem. The announcement was made following the summit between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem.
While most Muslim residents here welcomed the news about the impending return of the gunmen, some Christian families expressed fear that the deportees would once again impose a reign of intimidation and terror in the city. "What a wonderful Christmas gift from Father Christmas, Ehud Olmert," commented a local businessman. "These men were responsible for a spate of attacks on Christians, including extortion and confiscation of property." He said the biggest threat came from those gunmen belonging to Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, whose members often targeted "peaceful" Christians.
"I'm aware that most Christians living here are afraid to speak publicly about the issue, but the overwhelming majority was not unhappy when these thugs were deported from the city," he added. "Now some people here are once again worried because of the reports that they will return. They remember all the bad things that happened to the Christians when these gunmen were roaming the streets. People also remember how the gunmen mistreated the monks and nuns who were held hostage during the raid."
The families of the Bethlehem deportees have been campaigning for the past four years to allow their sons to return home. The issue has been raised several times during meetings between Israeli and PA officials, but no solution was ever found. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed at the 2005 Sharm e-Sheikh summit with Abbas to the formation of a joint committee that would discuss and solve the problem of the deportees.
Mary, who works in a local tourist agency, said not all the deportees were involved in anti-Christian actions. "Some of them were good boys, but there were a few who used their guns and rifles for criminal purposes," said the 44-year-old woman. "Some residents are now worried that these guys will return to the streets of Bethlehem. We heard that one of them, who is now in Europe, was involved in the murder of two Christian sisters in Beit Jala."
Tony [not his real name], who owns a small souvenir shop near Manger Square, said he and many of his fellow Christians used to live in fear when the gunmen were around. "They used to take cigarettes and other goods for free from my neighbors," he recalled. "When they were deported from the city, there was a sigh of relief not only among Christians, but some Muslims as well. Let's hope that when they come back, they will return to normal life." The few Christians who agreed to go on the record had only words of praise for the gunmen.
Gee, I wonder why that is? Caroline Glick’s recent Jerusalem Post column takes us back to April 2002 and the Church of the Nativity siege:
On April 2, 2002, as IDF forces swept into Bethlehem to root out the terrorists who had taken control of the city, between 150 and 180 Fatah terrorists under Yasser Arafat's command shot their way into the Church of the Nativity. For the next 39 days they held the sacred site and some 150 clergymen hostage.
Three weeks into the siege, three Armenian monks escaped from the church through a side entrance and revealed what was happening inside. Friar Narkiss Koraskian told reporters: "They stole everything. They stole our prayer books and four crosses. They didn't leave anything."
When the siege ended, the released hostages told of frequent beatings of clergymen. The terrorists, they told The Washington Times, "ate like greedy monsters," gorging themselves on food and slurping down beer, wine and Johnny Walker scotch they stole from the rectory as their hostages went hungry.
CATHOLIC priests said that the terrorists used their bibles as toilet paper. Franciscan priest Nicholas Marques from Mexico reported: "Palestinians took candelabra, icons and anything that looked like gold." Thirteen of the ring-leaders of the siege were deported to Cyprus and then dispersed to European countries. Twenty-six were sent to Gaza.
Bethlehem's Christians could not hide their relief at the expulsions. They spoke of a "reign of terror," of rape, murder and extortion that the men had waged against them over the previous two years. Helen, a Christian woman, told The Washington Times, "Finally the Christians can breathe freely. We are so delighted that these criminals who have intimidated us for such a long time are going away."
On Saturday night, as part of his massive effort to "strengthen" Abbas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to convene a joint committee to discuss the return of these terrorists to the city. Speaking of his good friend Mahmoud on Sunday afternoon to a Kadima audience in Ashkelon, Olmert allowed that "Abu Mazen [Abbas] is an adversary." But, he explained, he is an enemy Olmert can do business with.
Pre-Olso, the Christian population of Bethlehem numbered over 80%. Today the Christian population hovers below 20% and dropping steadily. Olmert may able to do business with Abbas but can Bethlehem’s ever dwindling supply of Christians afford to pay the price?
It’s strange how many in the Christian dominated Western world obsesses endlessly over the alleged plight of Muslim Palestinians but show not the slightest regard for the health and well being of the Christian minority under the Muslim dominated Palestinian Authority.
There is no question if I had to choose between living as a minority under Israel or the Palestinian Authority; Israel would win hands down. What I have a hard time understanding is why so many who support the “two state solution” as the path to peace believe that statehood is the answer for what ails the Palestinians? It just seems to me to establish or confer the legitimacy of statehood on the Palestinian Authority at this time is to internationally sanction rule by thuggery. And just how many Arab repressive regimes does the world really need?