26 of men holed up in Bethlehem church surrender to Israelis


BETHLEHEM, West Bank - They emerged one by one yesterday from the Church of the Nativity, ducking through the tiny Door of Humility and stepping out into the bright sunlight of Manger Square to face the guns of a dozen Israel soldiers.

Led by a brown-robed Franciscan monk, each man slowly walked across the stone courtyard to a waiting Israeli army jeep. Each man paused to lift his shirt or jacket to prove he hadn't strapped a bomb to his waist.

It was the largest group - 26 in all - to leave the church compound since the siege began April 2 when Palestinian gunmen shot the locks off a gate and stormed into the shrine to escape an advancing army.

Twenty-four of those who walked out yesterday boarded an Israeli bus and were taken to a military base to be identified. One man was carried out on a stretcher and rushed to a hospital. Another, a high-ranking Palestinian security officer, was whisked away in a jeep, which an army spokesman said was done out of respect for his rank.

It was another step toward ending the standoff inside and outside one of Christianity's holiest shrines, the 1,500-year-old stone church built over the grotto where some Christians believe Jesus was born.

"This will be a test," said Imad Natshah, one of the Palestinian negotiators meeting with Israeli officials to end the siege. "The people who left today were all very fearful that they would be detained and arrested. If they make it home safely, then maybe the rest might decide to leave."

About half of yesterday's group were Palestinian police, the rest civilians. They did not include any of the 30 armed militants wanted by Israel. As many as 180 people remain inside, including priests and children.

Army officers say soldiers will remain outside and keep all of Bethlehem under curfew until the situation is resolved.

The first person to walk out of the complex yesterday emerged at 3:36 p.m., escorted by the Rev. Ibrahim Faltas, the caretaker of the church, and Anton Salman, a Palestinian lawyer. Both have been inside the church since the siege began.

The rest followed at intervals of two or three minutes. In most cases, only Faltas walked alongside each man, always in the sights of Israeli snipers, some hidden and some in plain view.

Soldiers frisked each man and checked the names off on a prepared list. Most of the men appeared tired and dirty, with frayed beards and soiled clothes. Some smiled as they walked in the fresh air, their hands nervously above their heads. Most stayed grim-faced. All were silent.

The army set up a small white table with sliced pound cake, apples and soda bottles filled with water. Every man who left the church walked past the table without touching the food.

An Armenian monk and a Greek Orthodox priest also emerged from the church and wandered around the square, apparently using the interlude to get some fresh air. They shook hands with soldiers and then disappeared back inside.

The priests say they will remain in the church to protect the shrine. There were the priests, the soldiers and some children who took advantage of the break in tensions to play soccer in the streets.

At the heart of the siege are about 30 militants who participated in the fighting during the Israeli offensive and are accused by Israel of committing terrorist acts. Israeli officials want to arrest five of them and propose sending the others into exile.

The gunmen have refused to surrender to Israel. Palestinian officials have proposed the men be sent to the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army insists that the other Palestinian police, civilians and priests in the church are hostages; the Palestinians say those people are free to go at any time. Natshah said that everyone could have left yesterday, but only 26 volunteered.

Other small groups have left, including some children, nuns and priests. Most were elderly or sick. Some youths said they sneaked out of unguarded doors. One priest was photographed this week holding up a sign that read, "Please help us."

Natshah said negotiations to end the standoff could resume today.

Conditions inside the fortress-like church complex - which includes a basilica, a monastery and several courtyards - are almost unbearable, according to people who have been inside. There is no running water and only sporadic electricity. Garbage is piled near the altars.

Food is scarce, with some of the men risking sniper fire to creep outside and pick grass to eat. The church smells of human waste. Men are suffering from gangrenous wounds. Children huddle in underground grottos.

Two decomposing bodies were carried out last week, avoiding the burial of two Muslim fighters in a Catholic church, and several people inside and outside the church have been shot and killed - the latest on Sunday. A monk was accidentally wounded by Israeli fire three weeks ago.

"Sometimes they shoot at us," said Israeli Army Lt. Tamir Milrad. "We only shoot back when they shoot first. They are shooting from the windows of the church."

Bethlehem remains moribund. Residents are confined to their homes, allowed out for only a few hours each week. Pope Paul VI Street is a garbage dump, taken over by clouds of flies feasting on rotting fruit and food that spilled from the ancient marketplace when tanks rumbled through.

Coils of barbed wire surround Manger Square. The army cleared the square of most cars run over by tanks and hauled the crushed frames into an underground garage at the Peace Center. Soldiers take cover under palm trees and behind benches, keeping their guns trained on the small church windows in the high stone walls.

A crane towers over either side of the church, each topped with a camera and a machine gun that can be fired by remote control.

The Peace Center, built to help tourists understand the historic importance of Bethlehem, is an army command center, its entrance covered with green army netting.

"Nobody who is here wants to be here," said one of the soldiers, Eddie Zuckerman, a young reservist who has been in the square for the entire month.

Soldiers mill about the Peace Center, smoking, drinking coffee and using computers to send e-mails home. At night, the army broadcasts the sound of gunfire and explosions from large speakers, a blend of sleep deprivation and scare tactics.

"At this point in time, we are closer to negotiating a solution than to acting with force," said Lt. Col. Roni Numa, who is responsible for the military operation around the church.

"A military solution is a red line. We don't want to cross it, but we can do it if we are forced. We want to end it in a peaceful way. But we do have the ability to finish this off in less than half an hour."

Their superiors in Jerusalem have flatly ruled out the use of force against the church.

When the purple-and-white tour bus with shatterproof windows pulled out of Manger Square, the priests went back into their darkened church and soldiers grew more tense, pushing reporters away from the square and re-erecting barricades. They carried the table full of untouched food back into the Peace Center.

And the children playing soccer hurried off the streets to honor the curfew.

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