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New Book Recalls 2002 Bethlehem Siege - 2003-10-08


One of the most dramatic incidents in the Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, during the past three years was the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. Newsweek magazine correspondent Josh Hammer has written a book, A Season in Bethlehem, that describes the events surrounding the incident as a microcosm for the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Hammer's book provides a detailed description of Israel's 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem in April 2002. Israeli troops had surrounded the church, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, when 200 Palestinian fighters took refuge inside, along with some innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

Israel's military had moved into Bethlehem as part of Operation Defensive Shield. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had launched the military campaign in the West Bank after a bloody wave of suicide bombings in Israel. Mr. Hammer tells what happened when the Israeli troops came into Bethlehem.

"The tanks and troops entered the Old City, which had never been before in previous Israeli incursions. Basically, after a brief but intense battle they chased all the militants into Manger Square and then across Manger Square into the Church of the Nativity where they took refuge," the author explained. "And Israel then proceeded to besiege the church for fear of causing damage to it. Rather than invading the church they decided to wait out the gunmen holed up inside."

Palestinian gunmen finally emerged after a compromise was brokered with American help. Most were expelled to Gaza. Thirteen were deported to Cyprus and several other European countries that had agreed to take them in.

During his frequent reporting trips into the West Bank before and after the incident, Mr. Hammer had come to know several of the people caught up in the chaos. They included Bethlehem's beleaguered governor who disapproved of the Intifada, the commander of one of the town's most-feared gangs and an Israeli reservist who found himself battling the Palestinian fighters that day.

Through extensive interviews with many of those who had been locked inside the church and their families, Mr. Hammer looks at what spurs Palestinian violence.

For many of the young fighters, he says, a deep sense of despair and unfulfilled dreams could drive them to carry out suicide missions. "There are a few themes that seem to unite some of them," Mr. Hammer pointed out. "A lot of the militants were in their late 20s. As teenagers in the late 1980s most of them had gotten involved in the first Intifada, which basically consisted of throwing rocks and stones and fire bombs occasionally at Israeli troops. Many of them had been jailed and served several years in the Israeli prisons in the late 1980s and 1990s. And that seems to have been a very formative experience for most of them. They were beaten, sometimes tortured, and harshly interrogated, deprived of schooling and left there filled with if not an outward rage a buried rage waiting to express itself."

Mr. Hammer says the Palestinian Authority was not able or willing to curb the violence or control the surge of gangs that created what he described as a lawless zone. Eighteen months later, the Intifada has died down but, Mr. Hammer cautions, not the undercurrent of violence. "It's petered out although the groups are still in the West Bank. They've been driven underground. They still exist in some form."

Mr. Hammer says Bethlehem's deteriorating economic situation also mirrors other West Bank towns that are being isolated by Israel's new security wall that is snaking into the West Bank around them.

"Unemployment is over 50 percent," he noted. "They need permits even to leave their villages. Moving from Bethlehem to Ramallah can take eight hours [with] roadblocks and checkpoints and identification checks and humiliation by Israeli troops. It's a big mess."

Author Josh Hammer says the security wall and Israel's pursuit of militant Palestinian leaders is fueling more Palestinian violence. "There's been nothing on the Israeli side to quell the rage and deep frustration," he said, "and the yearning for a state that started this thing in the first place."

Mr. Hammer says Palestinians express bewilderment at the absence of an international outcry over Israel's actions and frustration over the lack of progress on the so-called "road map" for peace.

Palestinian attitudes toward Israel and the use of violence are not unified. Mr. Hammer says Palestinians are more sharply divided now between those who are fed up with the violence that has won them little and those who say there is no other way.

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