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The Siege of Bethlehem
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April 1, 2002

In Israel's military campaign to hunt down Palestinian terrorists, tanks surround the West Bank Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

April 2

Israeli warplanes, tanks, and troops launch a major ground and air attack on Bethlehem. Heavy fighting breaks out in the streets of the Old City behind Manger Square as Israeli soldiers enter homes and religious buildings in search of militants.

Israeli soldiers pursue Palestinians through Manger Square

Approximately 200 Palestinians fleeing from Israeli troops break into the compound around the Church of the Nativity. Around 60 priests, monks and nuns who live in the church compound are trapped inside with Palestinian civilians and gunmen--among them, several heavily armed militia members, including Ibrahim Abayat and Jihad Ja'arie of the Al Aqsa Brigade.

The militants had sought refuge in the Square near the church thinking Israel would not fight so close to a Christian holy site. (The fourth century Church of the Nativity was built over the site where Christians believe Jesus was born; it is one of Christianity's most sacred places. Today the church compound is managed jointly by three different Christian groups: the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church.)

April 3

The standoff begins. The Palestinians holed up in the church are surrounded by Israeli forces. At first, the trapped Palestinians eat food stored by the monks and nuns who live there; over the next few weeks, conditions deteriorate as food and water run out and all but one line of electricity is cut off.

April 4

Samir Ibrahim Salman, the church bellringer, is shot dead by Israeli snipers when he runs out of the church. An Israeli spokesman later says the sniper fired when Salman appeared to be ignoring shouted orders to stop; they feared that he might be a suicide bomber.

April 5

Four Franciscan priests come out of the church and leave Bethlehem under Israeli escort. Israeli army spokesmen say statements made by the priests indicate that the clergy in the church are being held hostage by the Palestinian militants; a spokesman for the Franciscan order told reporters that the clergy inside were "voluntary hostages" who were remaining in the church to show solidarity with the trapped Palestinians and because they believed that their presence in the church would help avoid further bloodshed.

April 8

The Vatican calls on Israel to respect holy sites and demands an explanation for the fighting around the church. Israeli President Moshe Katsav replies the next day with a letter to the Pope saying that Israel will continue the siege until the Palestinian gunmen surrender.

Gunfire damages the exterior of the church and starts a fire in an adjoining building. One Palestinian is killed and two Israeli soldiers wounded in the gun battle; each side claims the other fired first.

fire in manger square April 10

An Armenian monk is shot and seriously wounded by the Israelis; the next day, an Israeli military official says the soldier mistook the monk for a Palestinian gunman.

Israel ratchets up the pressure on the Palestinians. It sends a blimp fitted with surveillance cameras above Manger Square and sets off a number of loud but harmless explosions. Over loudspeakers, the Israelis call on Palestinians to surrender and broadcast sirens and other noises.

April 12

The Christian Franciscan order appeals to Israel to release the Palestinians and to provide water and power to the clerics trapped with them.

April 14

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon says that the trapped gunmen have a choice of either facing trial in Israel or accepting permanent exile. The Palestinians refuse.

More gunfire is exchanged. A Palestinian is shot and killed; an army spokesman says he was armed and preparing to shoot at the Israeli troops.

April 17

A Palestinian leaves the church and is shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers and later taken to a hospital for treatment. A sick priest is also evacuated to the hospital.

April 18

Israel cancels scheduled negotiations to end the standoff, according to Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser.

April 20

A Palestinian negotiator tells reporters that food and water in the church have run out.

Five Palestinians escape down ladders left leaning against a church wall by Israeli soldiers.

April 23

The first round of face to face negotiations to end the standoff begins in the Peace Centre across Manger Square from the church. The Israeli team is led by Lt. Colonel Lior, the Palestinians by former PLO commander Salah Taamri. The first day, it seems neither side will compromise: the Israelis reiterate Sharon's demand that the gunmen on Israel's wanted list face either trial in Israel or deportation, while the Palestinians insist that the wanted men should be sent to Gaza for Palestinian judicial proceedings.

Three priests leave the compound.

April 24

Two Palestinians inside the compound are shot by Israeli snipers; one later dies from his wounds. Two unarmed Palestinians surrender to Israeli forces, saying they are sick. Army spokesmen say the men are members of Palestinian security forces.

In the second day of negotiations, the two sides forge their first deal. The Israelis agree that the decomposing remains of two Palestinians killed earlier in the siege may be removed from the compound; in exchange, the Palestinians will allow a group of teenagers to leave.

Palestinian youths with coffins April 25

Nine Palestinian youths emerge from the church carrying the corpses of two Palestinian policemen in homemade coffins. Israeli forces question the youths and then release all but one of them to their homes. One was detained by secret security because he was suspected of planting explosives in Jerusalem, according to Israeli negotiator Lt. Colonel Lior.


VIDEO EXCERPT: Breakthrough: the First Deal. Palestinian teens carry bodies out of the church.

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April 26

Four Palestinian policemen surrender to Israeli troops; two Palestinians inside the compound are wounded by Israeli sniper fire and evacuated for medical treatment.

April 27

The Palestinian delegation returns from a meeting with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and are ready to make a "food for people" deal. Palestinian representative Salah Taamri offers to go in and speak to those in the church about the fate of the men wanted by Israel and to try and convince those inside to release a group of innocent civilians in exchange for food. By this time, stocks of food inside the church are long gone and people now are eating plants growing in the courtyard.

body of nidal abayat at his funeral April 29

In Ramallah, a similar siege on Yasir Arafat's compound ends with six men on Israel's wanted list released into Palestinian custody. Israeli negotiators realize that their mandate to fight for Israeli jail or deportation for the men wanted in Bethlehem is likely no longer in force. This Ramallah agreement inspires Palestinian negotiators to call for a similar deal for the wanted men in the church.

Palestinian militia leader Nidal Abayat--one of the men on Israel's most wanted list-- is killed by an Israeli sniper in the church courtyard. Palestinian negotiators break off talks. Isrealis say Abayat was firing an automatic weapon from within the church.

April 30

Twenty-four Palestinians leave the church as part of the "food for people" deal brokered by Lt. Colonel Lior, but the food is not delivered. The authority of the Israeli negotiating team has been usurped by separate negotiations taking place between Israeli and American politicians. According to Lt. Colonel Lior, the Israeli strategy shifts "from negotiati[ng] to agreement as a primary tactic, to block[ing] the area and increas[ing] the pressure as a primary tactic."

photo of a church fire May 1

Fire breaks out in buildings adjacent to the church compound after a heavy exchange of gunfire. The video is broadcast around the world. Both sides blame the other for starting the blazes, which are extinguished within the hour. The international press is invited back to Manger Square by the Israelis in an attempt to minimize PR damage.


VIDEO EXCERPT: The World Watches as the Church Burns

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Protestors try to enter the churchMay 2

Dodging Israeli gunfire, a group of international peace activists bringing food, and a Los Angeles Times photographer, sneak into the church. Once inside, they describe the deteriorating conditions to reporters by telephone, saying people have only grass and leaves for food.

Negotiations take on political urgency. There is mounting U.S. pressure for a deal prior to a scheduled meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Israeli negotiating team on the ground is informed that their mission is over.

Gun battles around the church continue. An armed Palestinian is shot dead by Israeli troops; two others are severely wounded.

May 3

Three sick and exhausted Palestinian policemen emerge from the church and are taken into Israeli custody.

May 5

Negotiations intensify when American representatives, as well as top aides to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, join the talks. CIA agents arrive in Manger Square accompanying a delegation of high ranking Palestinians under orders from Yasser Arafat to release a list of those in the compound.

Israeli troops shoot and kill an armed Palestinian in the compound.

May 6

A tentative deal, brokered by the U.S., is reached: the Palestinian fighters will be released, with those considered by Israel to be the most dangerous going into exile in Europe, most likely in Italy, those less wanted released into Palestinian custody in Gaza. The rest would go free.

May 7

Italy refuses to take all the exiles, thwarting the deal.

May 9

Cyprus says it will take the 13 men on Israel's most wanted list temporarily while a decision is made on their ultimate destination.

palestinians file out of the church May 10

The siege ends; all Palestinians leave the church. The 13 most wanted men, including Ibrahim Abayat, are flown to Cyprus; 26 others, banished from the West Bank, are taken to Gaza.

May 22

European Union negotiators finalize the arrangements for 12 of the exiled Palestinians: three will go to Italy, three to Spain, two each to Greece and Ireland, and one each to Belgium and Portugal. They will initially receive a one year temporary residence permit in their host countries. The thirteenth Palestinian, believed by Israel to be the most dangerous and the leader of the militants during the siege, will remain in Cyprus until a country is found that will accept him.


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