Inside The Siege Of Bethlehem

Inside the Basilica of the Church of the Nativity, the stench of 150 unwashed human bodies mingled with the reek of fecal matter. The halvah, cans of lentils, chocolate bars and Marlboro Lights had run out days before, and the food stocks ransacked from the Franciscan compound were nearly gone. Weakened men boiled soup made from the leaves of lemon trees picked in the Greek Orthodox compound--gathered under the menacing sight of a remote-controlled sniper rifle bolted to the top of a crane at the edge of Manger Square.

In the southern corner of the basilica, Ibrahim Abayat paced the stone floor, a mobile phone in his hand. Pale, plagued by migraines, hungry and weak, Abayat was a man transformed. Gone was the confidence of the gunman who once strutted around Bethlehem, boasting about how he'd orchestrated the killings of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. At that time the 29-year-old leader of Bethlehem's Aqsa Martyrs Brigades had vowed to "go out either as a winner or a martyr." Now Abayat was feebly pleading for exile. He would gladly move to Italy, he told NEWSWEEK during a brief phone conversation. "They've got spaghetti there, so I'll be OK."

Moments later Abayat's mother--sitting beside a NEWSWEEK correspondent at her home in Bethlehem--got on the phone. "Abu Atef," she said, "may God bless you. You haven't received food? We hope God will send you a table of food like they did to the prophet Moses in the desert." When Abayat told her that his last meal had been two spoonfuls of macaroni, eaten the previous day, she began to weep. Her son, a top figure on Israel's wanted list, calmed her, then begged her to let him hang up. "I'm too weak to talk," he said.

Ibrahim Abayat's ordeal would soon be over, and he'd neither be a winner nor a martyr. Thirty-nine days after Israeli tanks and troops surrounded Palestinian gunmen inside the Church of the Nativity, the standoff at Manger Square wound to a close last Friday morning with an emotional homecoming for some who were trapped in the church, and indefinite exile for others. It had begun as a sideshow to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's West Bank invasion in March, but the closing act of Operation Defensive Shield became both a media extravaganza and a powerful metaphor for the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The test of wills, on one of the world's most sacred sites, had the feeling of a slow war of attrition. During the siege, Israeli snipers killed eight people in and around the church, including a mentally retarded bell ringer, and injured 22, among them an Armenian monk; an Army spokesman claimed that all the dead men except the bell ringer were "terrorists." Trapped between the two antagonists were the Christian clergymen--many of them Palestinian--who had given refuge to the gunmen and now found themselves obliged to suffer along with them. As the siege dragged on, it seemed to capture the essence of the Mideast struggle: a prolonged, seemingly insoluble dispute between two stubborn and deeply distrustful enemies. Even the on-again, off-again negotiations over the terms of the release--conducted through intermediaries ranging from the Vatican to the CIA--spoke volumes of the larger inability of the two sides to settle their differences without foreign pressure and help.

Over 39 days inside the church, snipers killed, monks pleaded, militants abused a sacred sanctuary, soldiers vandalized, politicians threatened and cajoled, and everyone made a claim to righteousness. This is the story of four people intimately involved or caught up in the mayhem: Abayat, the gunman who had made it his mission in life to kill Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank; Mike Aviad, an Israeli reservist and son of a leading peace activist; Father Paul Delalande, a Franciscan priest and historian, and Omar Habib, a 16-year-old student from the Terra Santa School in Bethlehem, who found himself caught between Israeli and Palestinian combatants as he was trying to pick up a prescription for his diabetic mother. After nearly 40 days of warfare, negotiation, brinkmanship and capitulation, all four survived. At least two expected to fight again another day.

The setting was not only one of the holiest spots on earth, but also a place familiar with battle. Ever since the fourth century, when the Byzantine Emperor Constantine ordered a basilica constructed over the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, warriors and holy men have vied--often bloodily--for control of the site. The Turkish caliph conquered the Holy Land in 638, guaranteeing the integrity of the basilica to the Greek Orthodox patriarch. Five centuries later Crusaders seized the city and hoisted their flag over the basilica. Franciscan missionaries backed by the Vatican later wrested control of the Nativity Grotto, Jesus' supposed birthplace, from Greek Orthodox priests, sparking a series of bloody feuds that went on for centuries. But in recent decades the three Christian denominations represented in the church--Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians--have coexisted for the most part in peace. And even as the Palestinian intifada raged in the streets outside the church, the violence stopped at the Door of Humility, the tiny portal lowered in the 13th century to stop worshipers on horseback from entering and desecrating the site. That has now changed, perhaps forever.

On Monday, April 1, dusk fell on Bethlehem with the rattle of an Apache helicopter flying low over the city. Sitting in a red Toyota pickup parked in the center of Manger Square, Ibrahim Abayat cast a nervous glance at the darkening sky. The slim, stubble-cheeked Tanzim leader knew that the Israelis were out for blood: in the days following the March 27 Passover massacre in Netanya, in which a Hamas suicide bomber killed two dozen civilians, Israeli troops had besieged Yasir Arafat in his compound in Ramallah and had begun massing around other West Bank towns; now Abayat's spotters had reported a huge buildup of tanks and armored personnel carriers at four entry points to Bethlehem.

Rumors were swirling that the Israelis would head directly for the historic Old City, and perhaps even assault Manger Square. Decked out in a combat helmet and a flak jacket, Abayat summoned his guerrillas and laid out a strategy: the fighters would fan out through the narrow alleys of the Old City, where no Israeli tanks could penetrate, and resist the advancing Israeli infantry with every bullet they had. Seconds before roaring off with two comrades in his pickup truck, Abayat turned to a pair of correspondents standing nearby. "May God help us," he muttered.

A few hours later, in the darkness just before dawn, Capt. Mike Aviad peered through the periscope of an armored personnel carrier rumbling north from the Jewish settlement of Neve Daniel to the deserted main street of Bethlehem. A California-born Army reserve captain in the Jerusalem Brigade, Aviad huddled in the cold as his vehicle crept at six miles an hour behind a bulldozer and two Merkava tanks. Aviad's brigade commander had laid out their mission: chase the gunmen through the Old City and "catch them at the square." The convoy stopped at Yasir Arafat's abandoned palace, tucked behind the bombed-out rubble of the Palestinian security headquarters, where all was quiet.

At daybreak Aviad's convoy of armored vehicles rolled down Pope Paul VI Street and into the Old City. Aviad, 32, dismounted from the APC in the freezing rain, hurled a smoke bomb and walked down the street; when the smoke cleared, two Palestinian fighters rose up from between parked cars and fired at him. Tanks plowed down the narrow road as far as they could go, rolling over cars, shearing off masonry and slicing through water pipes. A Russian comrade of Aviad's tossed a grenade into a food shop, igniting a stack of cooking-gas canisters. The blast knocked him off his feet and blew the wads of toilet paper he had stuffed inside his ears deep into his eardrums, temporarily deafening him.

As Aviad and his company advanced through the Old City, Abayat and two dozen Tanzim beat a steady retreat. They fired from the marketplace, then burst into the Syrian Orthodox Church, firing Kalashnikovs from the windows as nuns and priests cowered in the corners. ("They are horrible fighters--a joke," said Aviad later of his Palestinian foes.) Then Abayat and his comrades fled from the church as well, leaving a dead fighter behind. Exhausted, soaked and freezing, the motley group of street fighters ran downhill into Manger Square--and straight into the trap that the Israeli Army had laid for them. Tanks were approaching the square from every corner of the city. The Aqsa leader gazed across the square to the fortress-like fourth-century stone wall of the Church of the Nativity. There was only one escape: "Go to the church!" people cried.

Abayat dashed to the twin double doors of the Franciscan Cloister, which had already been shot open. Inside, scores of people--gunmen and civilians--milled around the arched courtyard in panic and confusion beneath a statue of Saint Jerome. Black-robed Franciscan friars and nuns walked among them, tending to the frightened and the injured. "Please put down your guns," the priests urged. "Respect the sanctity of this place." Outside there was a burst of gunfire as Aviad and the armored convoy approached the square. Abayat sat down to wait, taking in the medieval frescoes, the limestone columns, the mosaics of angels and saints--so different from the simplicity of the mosques where he sometimes prayed. The siege of the Church of the Nativity had begun.

Father Paul Delalande's life of tranquillity ended before dawn on Tuesday, April 2. A Franciscan priest and historian who has lived in the convent since 1986, Delalande, 86, was roused from sleep by tank and machine-gun fire--sounds that conjured up vivid memories for him of the German invasion of his native France. Later that morning the priest was reading in the convent's ground-floor library when he heard a commotion in the nearby cloister. Father Ibrahim Faltas, an Egyptian who runs the Terra Santa Catholic school for boys, raced into the library: "Gunmen have entered the cloister," he told them. "Remain in the convent."

Delalande, like many members of the order, was sympathetic to the Palestinians but outraged by what he considered a violation of the church's sanctity. Still, once the door was broken down, Delalande felt obliged by his vows to offer sanctuary to the beleaguered fighters and civilians. Three priests--Father Faltas, a German named Father Johannes and the Palestinian Father Amjad--agreed to serve as intermediaries while 27 other members of the order, including Delalande, stayed out of sight. In the chaos of the first few hours, the priests handed out bread and blankets and tended to the handful of the sick and injured. They promised to share their food, but also asked the Palestinians to respect the Franciscans' privacy.

Omar Habib found his way to the church at 3 o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, after eight hours trapped under fire. A routine errand to buy medicine for his diabetic mother left the 16-year-old student caught between Israeli and Palestinian combatants. Habib dashed across Manger Square and found a spot in the Armenian Transept of the basilica, just beside the main altar. Huddled with a group of 30 others against the damp and cold, he rolled himself into a wedge of carpeting given to him by the Franciscan priests and prepared for what he assumed would be a brief stay. Sixty hours into the siege, he ate his first meal--a mush of rice and macaroni boiled in a communal pot on a gas stove.

The church soon became a microcosm of the Palestinian world outside. Twenty residents from Dehaishe, the refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem, laid claim to the rear of the basilica, between fourth-century limestone columns. Another group was made up of security men from Arafat's Palestinian Authority--many of whom had fought side by side with Tanzim and Hamas guerrillas against the Israeli Army. The wounded and the sick, including a young postman with acute appendicitis, lay in the dark Nativity Grotto.

Habib's group was a hodgepodge of guerrillas and civilians thrown together by happenstance. The men treated the teenager in their midst with respect: one of Habib's older brothers, Ahmed, is a prominent member of Hamas, the radical Islamic group behind many suicide bombings; another had been shot dead by Israeli troops two months earlier at the Bethlehem checkpoint, allegedly while planting a roadside bomb. (Habib's family insists he was just a merchant killed by mistake.) At night, unable to sleep, the group sat in a circle by candlelight, telling tales of Islamic prophets, and wondering what the Israelis would do to them if they tried to escape.

Habib got a fearsome indication of Israeli resolve just before dawn on April 8, when Israeli snipers shot Khaled Abu Siam dead as he tried to put out a fire in the Franciscan Parish Building. (The fire started under circumstances that are still disputed.) Tanzim gunmen carried Abu Siam's corpse to the basilica, where they placed it beneath a huge golden altarpiece topped by a medieval cross, and read passages from the Qur'an. The corpse then lay at Habib's feet in the Armenian compound for two days. Using wood ripped out of the burned parish building, carpenters finally built a makeshift coffin, fastening the planks together with melted candle wax.

The men brought the body to a cave beneath the Greek Orthodox convent--the so-called Grotto of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the slaughter of Jewish children by Herod the Great after the birth of Jesus. Some Islamic gunmen sought to bury the body in the Greek Orthodox garden, but the priests adamantly refused, fearing that the grave would someday become a Muslim shrine. "For the first two weeks we said, 'Another day or two and this will end'," Habib says. "But gradually our hope faded away."

Mike Aviad was preparing himself for a long stay too. After a wretched first night in an abandoned house in the Old City without food or blankets, Aviad and his company moved to the Peace Center, a community hall located across Manger Square from the Church of the Nativity. The soldiers' bellicose mood was summed up by graffiti a reservist spray-painted on the inside wall of the underground parking lot: [if there are] no Arabs, [then there's] no reserve duty!

Reservists vandalized dozens of cars belonging to PA officials, according to one soldier's published account, puncturing tires, smashing windows, and scratching the bodywork with rifle butts and barrels. The soldier also claims that others ransacked the upstairs office of Arafat's police, and carted away thousands of toys intended for Palestinian children, the gift of a humanitarian organization. Aviad himself joined in the looting after he made a foray to Arafat's presidential residence and was stunned by its opulence. "No Israeli office is done up so well," he says. "It was the fruits of corruption." He and other troops helped themselves to new police uniforms, snowsuits and berets--the spoils, he says, of "the enemy army."

Aviad and his colleagues settled down into a tedious routine of guard duty, interrupted by moments of drama. On April 8, Aviad was sent to rescue two Israeli soldiers who'd been shot by Palestinian gunmen while perched on the roof of the Casanova Building, a Franciscan hotel for pilgrims. Aviad and his team raced up five flights of stairs, and carried the critically injured men down on stretchers. A few nights later Aviad fired five flares over the church, igniting a fire in the compound. The son of Janet Aviad, a prominent Peace Now activist, Aviad says he was kidded by fellow soldiers: "What would your mother say?" they joked.

Despite his left-wing background, Aviad felt no remorse about the sniper shootings in the church. "Anyone armed gets shot, anyone crawling around gets shot," he said. Nor does he regret the massive operation against the Palestinians in the West Bank. "They voted for Arafat, and they send teenagers to blow up Israelis in cafes," he said. During down times in the Peace Center, the troops often talked politics, while one reservist played melancholy jazz riffs on a grand piano. "Everyone was depressed," Aviad says. "We all believed that this operation was OK, that something had to be done, but it doesn't mean people think it will change things."

Ibrahim Abayat, the Tanzim leader, knew that he was No. 1 in the Israeli Army's sights. Three times during the first two weeks of the siege, Israeli tanks pulled up to the Abayat home on the outskirts of Bethlehem, hustled the Tanzim leader's mother to the Peace Center and urged her to persuade her son to surrender. "You are the dove of peace," they told her. But she always refused to cooperate.

Like other gunmen in the church, Abayat felt sure that the Israelis would not break into a Christian holy site. He figured that after a few days the troops would pull out, and he'd be back in business. But as the Israeli Army dug in, the militant leader realized he was trapped. He slept for a few hours during the morning in a corner of the basilica, then paced around the church through the night, chain-smoking L&Ms until his supply ran out. Together with Abdullah Daoud, Bethlehem's director of general intelligence and another Palestinian high on Israel's wanted list, Abayat assembled a committee that dispatched fighters to guard windows, steeples and rooftops. He also helped to organize an elaborate food-smuggling operation. A sympathetic woman who lived in a house on Milk Grotto Street, adjacent to the Greek Orthodox convent, stuffed linen bags with cigarettes, bologna and canned lentils, and tossed them onto a low wall after dark; then 10-man teams would creep along the wall, retrieving the bags with hooks mounted on three-meter rods. But Israeli intelligence caught on to the operation and stationed snipers near the wall. The next time out, a 20-year-old was shot in the leg.

Paul Delalande tried to carry on with his life of prayer and study, but it wasn't easy. After gunmen ransacked the convent's kitchen on the third day of the siege, Father Faltas gathered everyone in a dozen top-floor bedrooms and stationed two priests on the staircase to discourage the gunmen from venturing upstairs. But the sacking of the kitchen continued night after night. During one evening of heavy fire, Faltas moved everyone to an underground grotto packed with reserves of food still undiscovered by the gunmen. Delalande spent that night hunched in a chair, reading a treatise on the prophet Ezekiel. Then the water and electricity were cut off, and Israeli commander Col. Marcel Aviv told Faltas that they would restore the supply "if more than half of the priests agree to leave." Faltas rejected the demand.

For Omar Habib, the deepening misery inside the church made him think about escaping. After the water pipes were shut, the men drew brackish water from four abandoned wells. "We saw red worms wriggling when we took the water out," he says. "We used white sheets as filters." Two days later the electricity was cut off; when an electrician named Hassan Quan tried to run extension cords to the Casanova, he was shot in the chest by an Israeli sniper and was dragged back to the basilica in his death throes; his corpse was stuffed into a makeshift coffin and placed beside the other dead man in the grotto. Food supplies ran low: one night the group ate wild lettuce stained with the blood of a man who was wounded by snipers while picking it in the garden. The stench of unwashed clothes and bodies grew unbearable; going to the bathrooms meant crossing the Greek Orthodox convent courtyard, which was exposed to an Israeli sniper rifle mounted on a crane.

The worst part of the ordeal, Habib says, were the noises blaring round the clock from Israeli loudspeakers--a screeching dissonance of dog barks, cat fights, grinding tank treads, explosions and orders to surrender. The Israelis tried other means as well. They set up telephones outside church doors and urged those who wanted out to phone the Peace Center; nobody dared take up the offer, both for fear of getting shot and being viewed as an Israeli collaborator. For two nights the troops hurled messages into the Greek Orthodox garden inside plastic bottles. "Come out, don't depend on others. Depend on yourself," the notes urged. "Your families, your wives, your children are waiting."

Habib insists he never felt like a hostage, but the pressures to stay were intense. One night Bethlehem Gov. Muhammad Madani, who had entered the compound late on April 2 to investigate conditions and found himself trapped, gathered teenagers beside a pillar in the basilica. The Israeli Army was ready to accept a coordinated mass release of civilians. "The Israelis say you are hostages," he told them. "I am prepared to let those who want to leave leave. Who wants to go?" All 20, Habib says, raised their hands. "OK," the governor said. "I'll open the door." But he added, according to Habib, "Whoever wants to leave will be considered a traitor and a lowlife. Those who stay will be heroes." After that, Habib says, nobody was willing to leave. Ten days later, however, on April 25, the governor returned and asked for 10 men under the age of 20 to depart. This time, Habib eagerly volunteered. A few hours later, he left the church, bearing the coffin carrying the body of Khaled Abu Siam, holding his breath against the stench of the man's decomposing remains.

Others, too, found themselves weighing their sense of duty against their growing desperation. Father Delalande remained inside the Church of the Nativity for 16 days, until the tension became too much for the octogenarian; Father Faltas arranged his escape through the Casanova parking garage along with an elderly American organist. A steady trickle of others followed over the next weeks, including three Armenian priests who had been robbed of money and crucifixes by a Palestinian gunman. The Armenians held up signs reading help and were evacuated by the Israeli Army, which hoped to use their story for propaganda purposes. But the Armenians refused to talk to the press, reportedly fearing retribution from Palestinian militants. And Aviad left the Peace Center after his 28-day tour, returning to finish his business degree at Hebrew University and wait for his next military call-up.

In the peace center that Aviad had made home, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators gathered to find their way out of an impasse. A month into the siege, Arafat had made a critical concession, agreeing to exile--Israelis called it "exclusion"--to Italy for 13 wanted men. But the Italian government refused to accept the men, and new disagreements kept emerging: the security forces holed up inside wanted to keep their weapons, for instance, while Israel insisted they surrender them. (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officers carried offers and counteroffers between the two sides, and solved the gun problem by taking possession themselves of the weapons.) Behind a military barricade off Manger Square, tempers were flaring as well: a CNN camera crew demanded to know why Fox's Geraldo Rivera had been allowed to set up shop just a few yards from the church. Over the shouts and curses of the CNN team, a quartet of saffron-robed Japanese monks banged their drums and chanted Buddhist mantras, praying for an end to the siege.

The remainder of the Palestinians finally stepped into the sunlight last Friday morning. Twenty-six of the gunmen were dispatched to Gaza, where they were taken to a hotel and then released onto the streets. Their 39 days under siege had done nothing, it seemed, to dampen their resolve to continue the uprising. "If the Israelis try to come into Gaza, I'm going to take up arms and fight them here," vowed Muhammad Khlif, 24, a gunman with the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. An additional 13 headed for a flight to Cyprus; they would be dispersed to several countries in Europe. Among them: Ibrahim Abayat, who ducked through the Door of Humility at 7 o'clock on Friday morning, drawing on his ever-present cigarette, waving to members of his family who watched from a rooftop. He had told them earlier by phone that he expected to be gone "six months to two years," but Israel clearly hoped to keep him out forever.

Hours after the men left the church, the Israeli Army pulled out of Bethlehem. As the tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled away in a cloud of dust from Manger Square, priests, nuns and hundreds of worshipers poured through the Door of Humility to survey their beloved basilica. Women wept as they wandered through the gloomy interior, gazing upon bedrolls, water bottles, kerosene lamps and other detritus scattered among the Corinthian columns. But except for a fire-gutted room in the Franciscan Parish, the damage to the church was minimal. Golden and silver crosses and crystal chandeliers and ancient frescoes gleamed through the murk, as they had for centuries. Despite the Israeli Army's claims that the Palestinians had looted and vandalized priceless artifacts, nothing appeared to have been touched. Suddenly, however, a loud explosion sounded near a doorway in the Greek Orthodox convent, and dozens of people fell to the ground in terror. "The door has been booby-trapped," shouted an angry priest, but it was unclear whether the Palestinians or the Israeli Army had planted the bomb.

As dusk fell on Bethlehem, the priests began to clear the church. Joyful crowds gathered on Manger Square, which had been occupied by Israeli tanks and snipers until just hours before. The Peace Center was deserted; uniformed policemen of the Palestinian National Authority patrolled the streets that Israeli troops had once held. A few members of Ibrahim Abayat's Tanzim militia even made a reappearance, celebrating their release from Israeli custody. After all the horror and the terror of the past 38 days, it felt almost as if nothing had changed at all.

Join the Discussion