Published May 11, 2002
BETHLEHEM, West Bank – A British military plane with 13 Palestinian militants aboard landed in Cyprus late Friday, and Israeli troops pulled out of Bethlehem, bringing the 39-day standoff at the Church of the Nativity to a peaceful end.
Twenty-six other Palestinian gunmen who had been holed up in the church were sent into internal exile in the Gaza Strip and not allowed to return to their homes in the West Bank.
Soon after the Palestinians left the church compound, Israeli troops began pulling out of Manger Square, and within several hours they had left Bethlehem completely, ending the incursion that began March 29 following a series of suicide bombings.
Several dozen Palestinian children clapped and whistled outside the church as the Israeli troops departed. Bethlehem residents had been kept under curfews for more than five weeks.
One by one, the gunmen walked through the low-slung Gate of Humility, the basilica's main door, into the hazy sunlight of Manger Square. Some waved or flashed victory signs, and one man briefly dropped to the ground, kneeling in a Muslim prayer pose. Two men were carried out on stretchers.
The Israeli army briefly questioned the gunmen at a nearby military base before driving one group to Israel's international airport near Tel Aviv for the flight to Cyprus, where they were expected to stay for a few days before being sent to various European countries. The other 26 were driven in two buses to the Gaza Strip, escorted by U.S. officials.
Seventy-three Palestinian civilians and policemen not wanted by Israel were released.
Israeli police in riot gear later entered the church to forcefully remove 10 foreign activists who had refused to leave the sanctuary with the others. The activists, including four from the United States, came out under police escort flashing victory signs to bystanders.
The activists had held up the Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem when they refused to depart the church, insisting they be accompanied by a lawyer to ask for immunity from prosecution and prevent their deportation. It was not clear if their demand was met.
The 10 had sneaked into the church on May 2 in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. Israel had said it would not leave the city until the church had been emptied.
In Washington, President Bush issued a statement calling the end of the standoff a positive move.
"The end of the standoff in Bethlehem is a positive development that removes an obstacle to restoring security cooperation between the parties and should advance the prospects for resuming a political peace process," President Bush said in a written statement.
"As I said on April 4, this can only happen if all parties assume their responsibilities for fighting terror and promoting peace."
At noon Friday, U.S. personnel could be seen removing weapons from the church as Israeli soldiers guarded the main door and clergy looked on. The Americans put rods down the barrels to check for ammunition, tagged the weapons and placed them in American vehicles.
Journalists who toured the church with priests before the Israel army swept the compound found it fouled with remnants of the standoff.
The wooden altar in the Armenian section of the basilica had been used as a food table and was covered with a coffee pot and left-over food. In one area, there were two unopened cans of beans.
Afterward an Israeli army officer, Capt. Ron Edelheit, said troops found 40 explosive devices, but provided no details.
The ancient basilica, built over the spot where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born, reeked of urine and leftover food. Dirty blankets and mattresses were strewn across the floor, along with unwashed pots and pans.
Israeli troops had periodically provided food to the clergymen inside, who then distributed it among the Palestinians. One priest, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained that the foreigners had desecrated the church by smoking and drinking alcohol. He said he was also upset by the trash in the compound.
Jesus' birth grotto, which is just a few steps down from the main hall of the basilica, was in pristine condition. Some of the younger Palestinians had slept there since it was the warmest spot, but were later persuaded to move elsewhere so priests could conduct services there.
There were no signs of damage to the church, though several rooms in other buildings in the compound had been scorched by fire. One of the foreign activists had said earlier that a 12th century fresco in the basilica was damaged by gunshots. However, the mosaic was badly preserved and it was not clear whether the damage was new.
The standoff began on April 2, as more than 200 Palestinians, including wanted militants, policemen and civilians, ran into the church fleeing advancing Israeli troops. At the time, Israel entered Bethlehem as part of a large-scale military operation in the West Bank aimed at rooting out militants suspected of involvement in a wave of suicide attacks that claimed the lives of dozens of Israelis.
Among the 13 deportees were nine members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and three members of the Islamic militant Hamas group. The 13th was Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian intelligence chief in Bethlehem.
Arafat came under scathing criticism from Fatah and Hamas for approving the deportations — a first in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has expelled hundreds of Palestinian activists since the 1967 Mideast war, but always unilaterally.
Arafat's senior adviser, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, defended the Palestinian leader against the accusations Friday, saying he had made the best possible deal. "President Arafat personally stressed that no Palestinian was to be turned over the Israeli government ... and this is what happened," Abu Rdeneh said.
Israeli officials have also come under fire at home for allowing the gunmen to slip away. Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, insisted that justice had been served. "I think we achieved all our goals and the innocent people, the clergy and the priests who were held there were released intact," Gissin said.
As he arrived in the Gaza Strip with the 26 others, Mazen Hussein, a 29-year-old who served in the Palestinian police force in Bethlehem, was welcomed by fellow officers.
"It's hard for us to leave Bethlehem, but we sacrificed ourselves to spare more than 140,000 people in Bethlehem from living under continued Israeli occupation," he said.
The Palestinians began emerging from the church shortly before 7 a.m. Friday. The first was Daoud, the intelligence chief and the most senior in the group.
Daoud had to take off his jacket before being cleared through two metal detectors set up on Manger Square. Wearing a black-and-white checkered Arab scarf around his neck and accompanied by two priests, he approached two Israeli soldiers, who briefly questioned him before escorting him to a nearby bus.
Another deportee, militiaman Jihad Jaara, was carried out on a stretcher, with a bandage on his right leg. He was taken to an ambulance.
Some of the men waved to Palestinian civilians watching the scene from nearby rooftops. Several women shouted to them.
A small group of Jewish settlers living near the military base where the Palestinians were questioned tried to block the buses by sitting in the middle of the road. After soldiers dragged them away, one woman protester tried to hurl herself at one of the buses, but she was not hurt.
The deportees were driven to Ben Gurion International Airport and from there flown to Cyprus. Cypriot officials said the men would be kept under guard at a hotel in Larnaca.
On arriving in Cyprus, the 13 militants were met by two armored cars and a squad of armed police. Twelve of the militants were taken in a minibus to the Flamingo Hotel on the beach boulevard in the city of Larnaca. The thirteenth came out on a stretcher and was taken by ambulance to Larnaca hospital, escorted by Cypriot doctors and nurses.
Jaara, the 31-year-old injured Palestinian, was admitted to Larnaca hospital where medical director, Dr. Andreas Demosthenous, said he had a broken leg caused by a bullet wound.
Demosthenous, who examined the Palestinians at the hotel, told The Associated Press: "They are in an amazingly good condition considering that they spent 40 days under siege, under very hard conditions ... They are simply very tired, but otherwise they are OK."
Hotel manager Anthonis Josephides said the Palestinians would stay under police supervision on the third floor. They would not be allowed to receive visitors.
"The hotel is functioning normally," Josephides said. As he spoke, tourists mingled with journalists and Cypriot policemen on the hotel's ground-floor balcony.
From Cyprus, they would continue on Italy, Spain, Austria, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg and possibly Canada, according to EU officials.
There was no indication that the Palestinians would face confinement in the host countries. An Italian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the details of the exile would be worked out at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday.
The United States, the Vatican and EU officials were heavily involved in negotiations to end the standoff.
The main sticking point in recent days had been finding a host country for the 13 top wanted men. Italy balked at taking in all of the men, but a breakthrough came when Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides said his country would temporarily accept them until they were flown to final destinations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.