BETHLEHEM — Visitors to the Church of the Nativity these days will have a hard time hearing their tour guide speak, for the banging of hammers and clamor of construction workers.
The 6th-century structure is undergoing a massive €2 million ($2.75 million) renovation aimed at fixing leaks from the ceiling, funded equally by the Palestinian Authority and European donor states. The job on the church’s interior must be completed by Christmas, so work is in full force. The classification of the church as a UNESCO world heritage site last year seems to have pumped new life into the ancient stones and invigorated the men laboring on them.
Outside, at Manger Square, the steady rain could not scare away local shoppers nor silence the loudspeakers playing an Arabic rendition of “Silent Night” under a huge plastic Christmas tree. Bethlehem’s preparations for Christmas are in full swing.
Just over a decade ago, the square was empty. On March 29, 2002, IDF Infantry Brigade 310 and Tank Battalion 445 rolled into northern Bethlehem as part of Operation Defensive Shield. The two reserve units were on a mission to retake the West Bank city, two days after a suicide bomber killed 30 Israelis and injured 160 during a Passover seder dinner at the Park Hotel in Netanya, in an attack that shocked the nation and spurred the army into action.
Over 200 gunmen, mostly Fatah members and PA policemen fleeing the IDF, took refuge in the Church of the Nativity on April 2, believing they would be safe there. They forbade 46 clergymen and some 200 civilians present in the church to leave, effectively holding them hostage as the Israeli troops encircled the compound.
The brother of Mahmoud Abu-Hammad, a 26-year-old restaurant employee from Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, was among the PA policemen holed up in the church.
“When you feel in danger, it’s only natural for you to head straight for a place that can protect you,” Abu-Hammad told The Times of Israel, retrospectively justifying his brother’s decision. “They thought the church would protect them from the Jews and the killing. They didn’t know that Jews don’t respect Muslims, Christians or even other Jews.”
The IDF was cautious in dealing with the situation, realizing how explosive storming the church could potentially be, both politically and religiously. As Israeli antiterrorism teams and negotiators headed to Bethlehem, Abu-Hammad’s brother, along with many of the besieged Palestinians, snuck out of the compound.
Framing the church saga as the armed takeover of a Christian landmark by predominantly Muslim gunmen is a narrative Bethlehem’s Christians are manifestly uncomfortable with
Israeli snipers surrounded the church, targeting armed Palestinians who ventured into open spaces within the compound. In a bid to force the men out, the IDF limited the amount of food allowed to enter. During the seven-week holdout, seven Palestinians were killed and 26 injured.
Anton Salman, a lawyer working for the Catholic Church and a member of Bethlehem’s Emergency Council, was called to the scene hours after the siege began, along with Governor Muhammad Al-Madani, to negotiate with the IDF.
“We thought we would find 10-15 people inside; instead we found hundreds,” Salman recalled in a telephone conversation with The Times of Israel. He and Al-Madani were ordered by the PA’s then-president, Yasser Arafat, to remain in the church until the crisis was resolved. They both remained with the captives for 38 days.
“Things inside were difficult in every sense of the word: food, medication, dead and injured. Tension mounted inside the church because the Israeli army placed snipers in various places. Anyone who walked out to the courtyards came under fire; some were injured and others killed.”
Eventually, following massive international pressure, a deal (Salman refuses to call it an agreement) was reached on May 9 with the IDF, allowing 85 civilians out of the church on condition that 39 of the wanted Palestinians be deported. Twenty-six were sent to the Gaza Strip and 13 — the more senior men inside, including Bethlehem’s chief of intelligence Abdullah Daoud — were expelled to six European countries: Ireland, Greece, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal, where they remain to this day.
Recalling those days, Salman said he understood the motives of the gunmen who chose to flee toward the shrine revered as Jesus’s birthplace.
“The people who entered the church did so because it is a holy place, a place with historic significance, which could provide them with personal protection. I don’t think it’s a mistake for someone to seek a safe haven,” Salman said, noting that monks in the church were allowed to practice their religious services free of harassment throughout the siege.
For Salman, the steadfastness of the gunmen holed up in the church is a tale of nationalistic bravery in the face of mounting Israeli pressure.
“The people [the gunmen in the church] were patient and resilient due to far-reaching patriotic reasons,” Salman said. “They were ready to sacrifice. They felt they were inside to convey a message of ending the occupation. This was a key element in their resoluteness.”
But some accounts tell a different story. Priests present inside the church during the siege reported the theft of valuable icons and the use of pages from prayer books as toilet paper. One Christian resident of Bethlehem — he spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal — said some gunmen defecated inside the grotto of the nativity.
Salman said those accounts were “inaccurate,” but would not elaborate.
When the IDF entered the compound following the siege, it was asked by church authorities to disarm some 40 explosive devices left behind by the besieged gunmen, Dore Gold recounted in his 2006 book “The Fight for Jerusalem.”
Framing the church saga as the armed takeover of a Christian landmark by predominantly Muslim gunmen is one that Bethlehem’s Christians are manifestly uncomfortable with, nor is the army’s presence remembered favorably by Bethlehemites.
Issa Giacaman, the owner of a local gift shop, said the IDF destroyed his warehouse, located behind the church, taking for their bonfires precious olive wood used to carve religious memorabilia. Abu-Hammad, the restaurant employee from Aida refugee camp, said he would wake in the morning during the 2002 military curfew to find street cats shot dead by IDF soldiers.
“The army would shoot at water tanks. Not one water tank was left in Aida,” he said.
Sitting in her office overlooking Manger Square, against the backdrop of an ornate Christmas tree and a large Palestinian flag, Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun said the siege of 2002 affected Christians and Muslims alike.
“The absence of peace affects the dignity of our city,” said the Christian mayor, noticeably more comfortable speaking about the full occupancy in Bethlehem’s hotels over the holiday season than about her city’s controversial demographics. “In Bethlehem we talk about Palestinians per se; there is no schism between Muslims and Christians. The only schism is a national one, between Fatah and Hamas.”
“The deportees should be given the right to come back,” she said.
Baboun was “ill at ease,” she said, talking about Christian-Muslim tensions in Bethlehem today, a city of 33,000 once predominantly Christian and currently two-thirds Muslim.
But Samir Qumsieh, the founder of the Christian Nativity TV channel and a resident of neighboring Beit Sahour, said rhetoric such as Baboun’s stemmed either from opportunism or naivete.
“The future of Christianity here is gloomy and anyone claiming otherwise is wrong,” he said. “Extremism is expanding and we, the Christians, are the weakest link in the chain.”