By Stuart Littlewood
The election of Egypt's president Muhammad Mursi momentarily threw a spotlight on the long-forgotten Palestinians exiled to Gaza after the Israelis' infamous siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank 10 years ago.
Still kicking their heels in Gaza the exiles called on Mursi to continue efforts to end the squabble between political rivals Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. They were optimistic that the new Egyptian president would work towards easing Israel's blockade on the Gaza Strip and press for Palestinians rights, including the right of exiles to return home.
It is expected Mursi will at least allow greater freedom to travel across Gaza's Rafah crossing into Egypt, the besieged enclave's only door to the outside world.
How did the exiles find themselves in the prison Gaza has become? In 2002 a young girl from a refugee camp triggered events that led to a 40-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This is probably the oldest Christian church in the world, built by Constantine the Great and dating from AD330. A member of the girl's family had been killed by Israeli occupation troops. Grief-stricken, she took revenge by turning herself into a suicide bomber.
The Israelis responded by sending 250 tanks and armoured personnel carriers, F-16 fighter jets, Apache gunships and hundreds of soldiers into West Bank towns like Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem late at night. In Bethlehem they cut the electricity supply and invaded the old township with helicopter gunships and occupied all key points around Manger Square. Many innocent Palestinians were killed by shelling and army snipers, and the market and some shops were set on fire as troops tried to hunt down suspected ‘fighters’. Civilians tried desperately to hide from the troops and a large number of people took refuge or arrived for other reasons at the Church and found themselves trapped, unable to leave.
A few years ago I interviewed one of the survivors, who recalled that "248 took refuge there. They included 1 Islamic Jihad, 28 Hamas, 50 to 60 Al-Aqsa Martyrs. The remainder were ordinary townsfolk and included 100 uniformed Palestinian Authority workers, also 26 children and 8 to10 women and girls. The Israeli soldiers would not allow them to leave, but they escaped in the first week by a back door."
Priests and nuns - Armenian, Greek and Catholic - from the adjoining monasteries brought the number to over 300 at the beginning. "Some of them went back to the monasteries but some stayed with us every day for the 40 days."
The Vatican was outraged. The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem called on Christians worldwide to make the upcoming Sunday a "solidarity day" for the people in the Church and the Church itself, and urged immediate intervention to stop what it called the "inhuman measures against the people and the stone of the Church".
The Israelis set up cranes on which were mounted robotic machine-guns under video control. According to eye-witnesses eight defenders, including the bell-ringer, were murdered, some by the armchair button-pushers playing with their video joysticks and some by regular snipers.
From the start, said my survivor, the Israeli troops used psychological warfare methods – for example, disorienting noise to deprive them of sleep, bright lights and concussion grenades. They paraded the families of the besieged in front of the Church to pressure them to surrender. They also used illegal dum-dum bullets which cause horrendous wounds and trauma. “Most of those who were killed… it was because of the dum-dums… so much bleeding, and it took so long to arrange to send them to a hospital.”
He said the soldiers fired tracer rounds into two of the monasteries and set the ancient fabric of the buildings alight.
15 days into the siege those inside managed to recharge their cellphones using the mains that supplied the Church towers and call for help. The Israelis had overlooked the fact that this was a separate supply coming from the Bethlehem municipality. Friends responded by sending food to the medical centre. From there it went by ambulance, along with authentic casualties, and was delivered to houses near the Church. At night young girls carried the food in plastic bags from house to house until supplies reached the dwellings nextdoor to the Church. The bags were then thrown from roof to roof. This went on for 6 days until one girl dropped a bag, which the soldiers found. The Israelis, now alerted, shot and paralysed another young man. It put an end to the food operation.
“Inside the Church we vowed not to harm the soldiers unless they actually broke in. When soldiers did gain access and killed one of the resisters, 4 of them were shot.”
Those trapped inside the Church were surprised to discover an old lady living within the complex. She had a small horde of olives and wheat, with which they made bread. So they managed to eke out the food for 28 days.
The Governor of Bethlehem and the Director of the Catholic Society were among those holding out in the Church. According to my survivor’s first-hand account, those inside only opened the door if someone died or was injured. He recalled watching through a peephole and seeing people approaching across the forecourt. "They were from the Peace Movement, 28 of them. By now the world media were watching. 17 were arrested but 11 took a big risk, managing to bluff their way in and bringing food in their rucksacks, which lasted another 4 days, and basic medicines.
The worst time, he said, was the final week - no food and only dirty water from the well. They resorted to boiling leaves and old chicken legs into a soup. He ate only lemons and salt for 5 or 6 days. "Many were so ill by this time that they were passing blood."
Outside some 15 civilians had been indiscriminately shot in the street or in their homes. The Israelis refused to allow the dead in the Church to be removed for decent burial. "In the end, the Governor decided it was better to be in jail than die. So we opened the door and surrendered on the 40th day. 148 had survived. We were promptly arrested and interrogated.
"13 were exiled to the EU, 26 were exiled to Gaza, 26 were wounded, 26 had surrendered because they were under-age. 8 were killed inside the Church, and with Samir (the bellringer) makes 9. They shot Samir in front of the Church as he came out to surrender."
The rest were allowed home, including my survivor. “The Israelis said to me, ‘Do you know why you are going home? Because America wants it’.” The adverse publicity had prodded the CIA and EU into taking a hand in deciding the fate of the survivors.
The whole disgraceful episode would no doubt have ended in more carnage if the world's media hadn't tuned in and ten international activists, including members of the International Solidarity Movement, hadn't managed to enter the Church.
I hear that the exiles have not been allowed to work since or receive visits from their families. According to some reports they were not even allowed to say goodbye to their loved ones before being packed off.
What exactly were they guilty of? They may have been Palestinian gunmen but the last time I checked it was perfectly OK to put up armed resistance against an illegal military occupation. Israel’s gunmen happen to wear uniform and are equipped with the best weaponry American tax dollars can buy. They are fond of saying, "We have a right to defend ourselves." So do the Palestinians. Obviously.
So why did America and the EU lend themselves to this shameful act of exiling... a helpful little boost to Israel’s ongoing programme of ethnic cleansing of the West Bank?
And having got their hands dirty isn't it time, after 10 years, they cleaned up and insisted that these forgotten men be re-united with their families?
A few weeks ago the Israeli press was practising their usual distortions and telling readers that "the terrorists took shelter in the famous church, and used about 40 priests and nuns as a shield, knowing Israel would not take a chance on inadvertently hurting priests and nuns".
But for Israel’s gunslingers it had been open season on bellringers and other innocents.
- Stuart Littlewood’s book Radio Free Palestine can now be read on the internet by visiting www.radiofreepalestine.org.uk. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.