Middle East

Remembering Israel’s siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

On 2 April, 2002, Israel imposed a military siege on the Church of the Nativity in occupied Bethlehem after some 200 Palestinians took refuge inside the church from the advancing Israeli army.

What: Israel’s siege of the Church of the Nativity

When: 2 April 2002 – 10 May 2002

What happened?

The Israeli siege began at the height of the Second Intifada which was sparked off two years earlier when the then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon stormed into Al-Aqsa Mosque protected by heavily armed Israeli police and soldiers. The provocative incursion provoked the second Palestinian uprising that lasted for five years.

On 29 March 2002, four days before the siege, Israel launched its most brutal campaign of the intifada to date, Operation Defensive Shield. This was the largest military operation conducted by the occupation forces in the occupied West Bank since the 1967 Six Day War. Israeli troops were sent into the heart of six major cities in the West Bank, including Bethlehem, and surrounding towns and refugee camps that were ostensibly under Palestinian Authority control.

Israel’s assault on Jenin, where the occupation forces remain accused of carrying out a massacre, began a day before the siege on the Church of the Nativity. Israeli soldiers killed at least 52 Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp and enforced a total lockdown that lasted for weeks. The Israeli government, meanwhile, banned journalists and human rights observers from the Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian civilians had very few places to seek shelter from the advancing Israeli army and its indiscriminate violence. Trapped in the centre of Bethlehem by the incoming Israeli troops, approximately 200 Palestinians, most of them civilians and policemen, along with Palestinian Christian priests and nuns and a few resistance fighters from local Fatah militias, took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, which Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus.

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Speaking to CNN about the motivations of those who sought refuge in the church, Anton Salman, a member of the Antonius Society humanitarian group in Bethlehem, was reported as saying at the time that the Palestinians facing the advancing Israeli army “saw their mosque, Masjid Umar, on the other side of the square from the Church of the Nativity, bombed. They were afraid, and they looked for a place to be secure. So they found the only way; they ran to the church and found a place to stay.”

Salman explained to CNN that, “The Church of the Nativity [has been a sacred] place to the people during all wars… So from this point, they thought that the church was a safer place to enter and [they] entered the church looking for protection.” At the time of speaking, he added, “They are still inside the church.”

What happened next?

The Israeli army imposed a siege that lasted over a month. Tanks were deployed near Manger Square, opposite the church, and Israeli snipers took up positions on the surrounding buildings. They were instructed to fire at anyone spotted inside the church, and sought their targets by using laser beams.

Israeli forces shelled the Church of the Nativity sporadically in an attempt to force the Palestinians inside the historic building to surrender. The bell ringer of the church, Samir Ibrahim Salman, was killed by Israeli fire. A report on his death said that Salman’s remains lay wrapped in plastic next to those of four other Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in Bethlehem. It was reported that the mortuary refrigerator had no room left because of the number of people killed during the Israeli onslaught, so doctors placed the bodies in an empty hospital room, where two small fans strained on the highest setting to circulate the air.

Being pinned down in one of the holiest sites in Christendom did not guarantee safety from the Israeli siege. The occupation forces destroyed the southern gate of the church and several Israeli soldiers moved into its southern courtyard. A week into the siege, Israeli soldiers opened fire at the church, resulting in a fire in the room of one of the priests who lived there. An Armenian monk was shot and wounded by an Israeli soldier. Israeli snipers killed seven more Palestinians and injured another 40.

The image of Israeli soldiers from an occupation army besieging a church — and not just any church; the Church of the Nativity — sparked global outrage. The Vatican issued a stern warning to Israel to respect religious sites. A spokesman for Catholic monks in the Holy Land was reported as saying that Israeli soldiers were guilty of an “indescribable act of barbarity.”

On 20 April, the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem called upon Christians worldwide to make the following Sunday a “solidarity day” for the people in the church and for the church itself. It also called for immediate intervention to stop the “inhuman measures against the people and the stone of the church.” Christians, Muslims and Jews were asked to gather at the main entrance to Bethlehem for a march to the church.

Israel tried to impose a media blackout. Occupation troops confiscated the government-issued press cards of 24 journalists and reporters in Bethlehem who were working for foreign television stations and press agencies. Journalists were blocked from going to the church and Israeli forces opened fire at the car of journalist Mohammed Mousa Manasra.

Negotiations to end the siege began on 23 April. It finally ended on 10 May following a European-brokered deal. Thirteen of the Palestinians who survived the siege were exiled to European countries and a further 26 were sent to the Gaza Strip. In 2016 they asked to be allowed to go home.

The Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian theatre company based in the West Bank city of Jenin, recreated key moments of the incident in its play The Siege. The play made its London debut in 2015, playing to a packed audience.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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