by | Jan 2, 2019 | KJ Howe | 4 comments

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a treasured holy site for Christians.  But for 39 days in the spring of 2002, it was the backdrop for the one of the most complicated sieges/hostage-takings and international negotiations in the modern history.  
In late March 2002, in the face of rising terrorist attacks in Israel, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launched Operation Defensive Shield: a significant military incursion into the neighbouring Palestinian state of the West Bank. The official goal was to “arrest” individuals responsible for attacks against Israeli citizens and bring them to trial, while destroying the resources of the various organizations who were resisting the occupation.  Israel’s conventional army had little difficulty advancing to their target cities and seizing control. But the operation became much more complicated during the strike against Bethlehem.
The IDF was familiar with both Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.  Over the previous months, they had conducted a number of retaliatory/pre-emptive raids against militants in the city.  On each of these occasions, both the militants and civilians had taken refuge inside the church, knowing it provided a safe haven.  

Ibrahim Abayet, one of the most-wanted
IDF intelligence suggested that Bethlehem would not present significant organized opposition to its occupation, so they only sent a reserve infantry brigade to handle the task. Anticipating the potential PR risks of combat involving the church, the IDF planned to pre-emptively insert an elite Special Forces team from the Shaldag Unit to block the church’s entrance.
While the conventional incursion into Bethlehem progressed smoothly, for unknown reasons, the Israeli Air Force helicopters failed to deliver the Shaldag troops in time.  As a result, they arrived about a half hour after several dozen militants and approximately 200 civilians had joined the 50 Franciscan monks who lived in the church.  With an assault on the ancient holy site a political impossibility, the lines were drawn. Israel was forced to lay siege to the church, trying to starve out the occupants or find a way to negotiate a reasonable resolution.  Inside the church, members of Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al-Asqa Martyrs Brigade, Tanzim, and a number of Palestinian police officers (who the Israelis treated as combatants) waited with the civilians as others negotiated their fate. 

Initially, the Israelis announced they would only lift the siege if all occupants who were on their “most-wanted list” would be arrested and tried in Israel. The IDF blockaded the area and positioned snipers around the church.  International pressure to move IDF troops out of the West Bank skyrocketed, with President Bush and a number of European leaders demanding an immediate withdrawal. But neither side showed any interest in a compromise.  The IDF gave its snipers authorization to fire on anyone they detected inside the building, cut off water and electricity, and bombarded the church with strange noises to disrupt the sleep and break morale.
Although the Israeli media reports referred to the non-militants as “hostages,” their real status was far from clear.  The monks inside the church chose to remain with the others in an effort to carry out their holy duties and support the Palestinians, whom they considered victims of violence.  The question for the Palestinian civilians was not as simple.  The governor of Bethlehem was initially inside the Church and asked a group of 20 young men who would like to leave the building with him.  Initially, all 20 raised their hands.  The governor then shared that anyone who left now would be looked down upon in their community and those who stayed would be hailed as “heroes.” After a second poll, he had no volunteers to leave.

Negotiations didn’t go smoothly.  A mentally impaired Christian man, the bell ringer at the church for over thirty years, was shot several times in the chest by an Israeli sniper and died over the course of hours while lying out in the open.  In a food-for-exit deal, 24 Palestinians left the Church, but the promised food was never delivered. as national politicians overruled the lead negotiator. 
Somehow, two Japanese tourists wandered into the military cordoned off area and had to be rescued by international journalists.  Also, ten international peace activists evaded the IDF forces and joined the Palestinians in the church, vowing to stay until the siege ended peacefully.  One day later, another group of peace activists broke the cordon and delivered food supplies and water to the besieged.  A U.S. brokered deal involving the most-wanted militants being exiled to Italy fell apart when the Italians refused to take the thirteen men (perhaps somebody should have asked them first?).  The seige became an international PR disaster for Israel.
Under mounting pressure, the Israelis moderated their demands and a negotiated end to the siege was worked out after 39 long days.  Of the 39 men on Israel’s most-wanted list, 26 of them were released to Palestinian custody in Gaza, while 13 others were taken to taken to Cyprus to await final destinations for new homes as negotiated by the EU.  Three eventually went to Italy, four to Spain, two each to Greece and Ireland, and one each to Belgium and Portugal.
The siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem stands as a unique event in modern history.  It showcased the subtleties and complexities of middle eastern politics, involved multi-national negotiations, and demonstrated the difficulty of waging a military operation under intense media scrutiny.  As someone who studies kidnapping, it’s compelling to see there are many different ways of being held hostage. And, in this case, Franciscan monks, innocent civilians, and militants were all trapped in the same cauldron.

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    I'd forgotten about the siege, KJ. Thanks for the vivid description of this tragic corner of history. One wonders when, or even if, it will ever end.

  2. Robin Burcell

    A fascinating glimpse into a piece of history that I'd forgotten about. The whole Israel/Palestine saga is so very sad.

  3. Lisa Black

    That is an interesting and terrible situation. 39 days! I wonder if there are any published books about what all went on inside the church during that time.

  4. Chris Goff

    Great look at Operation Defensive Shield. We were in Bethlehem in 1999 with the kids, and I'll never forget Addie, our youngest daughter, then age eleven, pointing at the tank in Manger Square and saying, "Oh my gosh, Mom, we were there!" History comes alive.