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Bethlehem Standoff Drags on Despite Talks

Several hundred armed Palestinians have refused to leave the church, considered the birthplace of Jesus Christ, for the last three weeks and are now dangerously low on food and water.

The wounded Palestinian was armed and standing at a window inside the church, according to the Israeli army. The unidentified man was evacuated to a Jerusalem hospital.

Two more Palestinians surrendered to Israeli soldiers today, saying they were ill. A journalist covering the church siege said the two were members of the Palestinian police force.

Sporadic gunfire continued throughout Wednesday as Israeli and Palestinian delegations began arriving for a second day of talks to break the standoff. No injuries were immediately reported but the shooting, which lasted about three minutes, sent journalists diving for cover.

The talks have centered on the Palestinian demand that those hiding inside be allowed to return to the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel has said that the Palestinians who surrender to Israeli authorities will be deported or face a trial in Israel.

“Our position is that they must be expelled. Too many times, terrorists have been put in jail [by the Palestinians] and have come out again on the streets,” said Israeli official Gadi Golan.

The standoff at the church has stirred angry reactions around the world. The church is one of Christianity’s holiest sites, and international criticism at both sides is mounting. Christian officials berated Israel for besieging the holy site with tanks and troops, and the Palestinians for storming the church with weapons.

Father David Jaeger, a spokesman for the Franciscans, who have priests who have chosen to remain inside the church, said they were not party to the dispute and “would be satisfied with any conclusion that is peaceful.

“The solution is not difficult, it’s just a matter of saying ‘yes’ to a reasonable, peaceful compromise,” he said. “We are between extreme disappointment and indefatigable hope.”

Hope and disappointment continues to plague the Middle East, as violence in the West Bank claimed the lives of five Palestinians.

Two Palestinians were killed and seven arrested today in an Israeli military operation near Hebron in the West Bank. Palestinians say the Israeli army blew up a cave in which the men were hiding, near the village of Bani Naim. The Israeli army said it was tracking suspected Palestinian militants.

Three other Palestinians were killed in an explosion in a house in the Jebaliya refugee camp near Gaza City. Witnesses said the blast may have occurred while the group was preparing an explosive.

Meanwhile, Israel pressed the United Nations to alter its mission of a team sent to examine the assault on the Jenin refugee camp. They said the team should inspect practices of Palestinian suicide bombings as well as the Israeli incursion.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not rule out changes to the team but rejected Israel’s calls for a delay.

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