Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

In a meeting today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert granted permission for terrorist leaders expelled from Israel after seizing Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002 to return to Bethlehem, top Palestinian sources told WND.

The terrorists, members of Abbas’ Fatah militias, long have been accused of engaging in campaigns against Bethlehem’s Christian population.

“This is a victory for the Palestinian people and for the Fatah militias. It is a very happy day,” Jihad Jaara, the exiled director of the Nativity siege told WND.

Jaara was the Bethlehem-area chief of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terror group at the time of the siege. The Brigades, Fatah’s declared military wing, took responsibility for all suicide bombings in Israel the past two years.

WND first reported three weeks ago Israel was studying allowing the exiled Bethlehem terrorists to return.

In 2002, members of Jaara’s group and other terror organizations holed up inside the Church of the Nativity while fleeing a massive Israeli anti-terror operation. Israel surrounded the church area but refused to storm the structure. Gunmen inside included wanted senior Hamas, Tzanim and Brigades terrorists reportedly involved in suicide bombings and shooting attacks. More than 200 nuns and priests were trapped in the church after Israeli hostage negotiators failed to secure their release.

The siege ended after 39 days when mediators agreed 13 senior terrorists would be deported to European countries, 26 would be transported to the Gaza Strip and the remaining gunmen would be freed.

The Nativity Church, one of the most sacred sites in Christianity, is the believed birthplace of Jesus.

According to media reports, the terrorists left the church in shambles.

Four Greek monks told the Washington Times the Palestinian gunmen holed up with them seized church stockpiles of food and “ate like greedy monsters” until the food ran out, while the trapped civilians went hungry. The terrorists also were accused of guzzling beer, wine and Johnny Walker scotch that they found in the priests’ quarters.

A Roman Catholic priest told the Times some Bibles were torn up and used as toilet paper, and many valuable sacramental objects were removed.

According to a chief Palestinian negotiator speaking on condition of anonymity, Olmert today told Abbas that in principle Israel will allow the return to Bethlehem of the 26 terrorists who were exiled to the Gaza Strip. The officials said a mechanism would be set up for Israel and the PA to facilitate the terrorists return.

Olmert said Israel would study the possibility of allowing the 13 senior terror leaders who were exiled to Europe to return in the future, the Palestinian official said.

David Barker, a spokesman for Olmert, could not immediate confirm the report.

Speaking to WND from exile in Ireland, Jaara said he was called by top Palestinian officials and informed the 26 exiled terrorists could return.

He said he was hopeful he would be back in Bethlehem soon along with the 12 other militants exiled to Europe.

“It’s such a happy day for me and of course for the families of these 26. Of course, I myself will return. I am confident I will,” he said.

Jaara carried out dozens of attacks and was responsible for orchestrating several suicide bombings and an attempted bombing of Jerusalem’s largest shopping mall.

The exiled Brigades leaders were accused by Israel of using local Bethlehem Christian villages to shoot at Israeli troops and draw retaliatory fire.

Christian persecution in Bethlehem

Bethlehem consisted of upwards of 80 percent Christians when Israel was founded in 1948, but when Israel handed over the territory to the PA in 1995 the Christian population started drastically declining to its current level of about 23 percent with a large majority of Muslims. The 23 percent Christian statistic is considered generous since it includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Some estimates place Bethlehem’s actual Christian population as low as 12 percent, with hundreds of Christians emigrating each year.

Israel signed the territory over to the PA as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Reports of Christian intimidation by Muslims immediately began to surface after the PA gained control.

Local Christian leaders speaking to WND stated they are concerned by what they said was growing radicalization and militancy among Palestinian groups, including Fatah, who reportedly have been targeting Christians in the city.

Christian leaders, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said they face an atmosphere of regular hostility and intimidation by Muslims. They said Palestinian armed groups stir tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets. They spoke of instances in which Christian shopkeepers’ stores recently were ransacked and Christian homes attacked.

The Christian leaders said one of the most significant problems facing Christians in Bethlehem is the rampant confiscation of land by Muslim gangs, including those related to Fatah.

Olmert to offer Abbas more concessions

Olmert’s summit today with Abbas was part of U.S.-brokered biweekly meetings between the two leaders. According to diplomatic sources, the meetings are being utilized to draft the outline of a permanent status deal ultimately yielding a Palestinian state. The outcome is scheduled to be aired in public at an international November summit organized by the U.S.

That international conference and talk from the Bush administration the past few weeks has led many here to speculate the U.S. will push in the near future for intense Israeli-Palestinian negotiations leading to a Palestinian state.

Already Olmert during the previous meetings has granted a number of security concessions to Abbas regarding increased Palestinian control of the West Bank.

The Israeli prime minister last month granted amnesty to 178 gunmen from Abbas’ Fatah organization who comprise most of the senior leadership of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The amnesty was granted on condition the terrorists disarm and refrain from attacks, but the Brigades reportedly have carried out scores of anti-Israel shootings and a number of Brigades leaders told WND they did not disarm.

Olmert reportedly is considering granting amnesty to 206 more Brigades terrorists. According to Palestinian officials, the Israeli prime minister already informed the PA that Fatah gunmen are largely immune from Israeli anti-terror raids regardless of whether they are officially on Olmert’s amnesty list.

Also, Olmert is strongly considering removing hundreds of Israel Defense Forces roadblocks and checkpoints situated in strategic sites located throughout the West Bank. The IDF sees the checkpoints as crucial in helping stop terrorists, including suicide bombers, from infiltrating Jewish cities.

As well, in a little-reported but major move, Israel earlier this month started allowing armed Palestinian policemen to patrol areas in the West Bank that fall under Israeli security control according to the 1993 Oslo Accords. Security in the territory, referred to as Area B, is supposed to be ensured by the IDF, which still monitors the area but has allowed for an unprecedented stepped-up armed Palestinian security presence there.

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