What Happened at the Church of the Nativity on April 2002?
The Church of Nativity incident remains one of the most talked about acts of brutality by the Israel’s forces. The world saw a siege of the Church of Nativity on April 2, 2002 and it lasted till May 10, 2002. A group of Palestinian Arabs entered the church in Bethlehem, one of the most sacred sites for Christianity, seeking refuge from the Israeli Defense Forces. Israeli soldiers from the IDF surrounded the church and targeted Palestinians, exchanging fires and plunging into the discretion of Holy places of Christians, for which Israel is much noted for.
The first claim of a wrong move from IDF became clear from the statement of Michael Sabbah, Head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. He said: "The basilica is a place of refuge for everybody, even fighters, as long as they lay down their arms. We have an obligation to give refuge to Palestinians and Israelis alike". IDF positioned its snipers on the rooftop of the “Peace Center”, a Palestinian convention center which was made the headquarters for Israeli soldiers. From their positions, the Israeli snipers killed seven Palestinian fighters, injuring an Armenian monk as well. Both sides opened fire and a smoke grenade thrown by the Israeli troops set ablaze a meeting hall on the second floor, which killed a Palestinian militant. On this act, Israel received a warning from Vatican City on April 7 to respect the religious sites, keeping true to their international obligation. Israelis were also accused of “indescribable act of barbarity” by the representative of Catholic monks in Jerusalem. Pope John Paul II described the situation in Middle East to have reached “unimaginable and intolerable” levels, requesting people to pray for the situation. British Foreign Office Minister, Ben Bradshaw remarked on the actions in the region, calling them “totally unacceptable”. While the entire world was condemning Israel’s act, the two parties exchanged fiercest round of fire on April 16. Two Palestinians were injured in this fire exchange and sent to the hospital while two Japanese tourists were rescued by journalists from entering the building while the siege was going on. Twenty days after the start of siege, on April 20, Christians from all over the world were called upon by the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem to observe the Sunday as a “solidarity day” for the people captivated in the church as well as the church itself. This was an attempt to immediately intervene and stop the “inhuman measures against the people and stone of the church”. On the other hand, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat complained about the Israel’s ferociousness: “How could the world possibly be silent about this atrocious crime? … What concerns me is what is happening at the Church of the Nativity. This is a crime that cannot be forgiven.” A priest present at the location reported to the Associated Press that he had feared Israelis rushing the building. While earlier reports also stated that the IDF shot their way in by breaking the door which was later blamed at the Palestinians. A fire was seen at the place on May 1 and the witnesses claimed it was flared by the Israeli soldiers. The negotiations to end the siege started on April 23 with Canon Andrew White, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Bethlehem as the mediator. IDF Colonel Lior Lotan came forward as the Israeli representative and Mohammad Rashid was appointed by Yasir Arafat to take part in negotiations on behalf of Palestine. The negotiations which went on for two days showed the willingness of Palestinians to deport the militants to Gaza Strip while Israel wanted to sent the militants to exile to Jordan, Italy and Gaza. A fire exchanged occurred again as a result of which two Palestinians were injured and four surrendered to the IDF. The siege witnessed eight Palestinian causalities as well as a wounded Armenian monk and a damage to the church estimated to about US$77,000.