The Siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem lasted from April 2 to May 10, 2002 in Bethlehem in the West Bank. As part of Operation Defensive Shield, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) occupied Bethlehem and tried to capture wanted Palestinian militants. Dozens of them fled into the Church of the Nativity and sought refuge. After thirty-nine days, an agreement was reached, according to which the militants turned themselves in to Israel and were exiled to Europe and the Gaza Strip.


The IDF expected the operation in Bethlehem to be relatively simple, after the regular Paratroopers Brigade had raided the city several times in the previous months. The mission was given to a reserve infantry brigade, the Jerusalemite Brigade, under colonel Rami Tzur-Hacham's command. During previous IDF entries into the city, wanted persons found shelter in the Church of the Nativity. This time, a force from the Shaldag Unit was sent to block the entrance to the site.[1]

The troops entered the city and met with disorganized Palestinian resistance. The Israeli Air Force's helicopter disposition landed the force half an hour too late. When the force arrived, the wanted persons were already there. Dozens of militants, Fatah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Palestinian Security Forces men fled into the church to fortify, along with forty monks and dozens of other Palestinians who arrived at the site for different reasons. In total, about 220 men were in the location. Among them were the governor of Bethlehem, Muhammad al-Madani, and Abdullah Daoud, the Palestinian intelligence chief in Bethlehem.[2]


On April 3, The IDF deployed tanks near Manger Square, opposite the church, and troops took up sniping positions on the surrounding buildings. The Israeli government said regarded the militants' use of holy sites as cynical and claimed that the militants had shot at the Israeli troops from the church. IDF spokesman, Brigadier General Ron Kitri, said: "It is complicated because it is a sacred place and we do not want to use live ammunition. There are several channels of negotiation to try to achieve as close to a peaceful solution as possible". Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the region, said the gunmen had been given sanctuary, and that "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".[3] The IDF placed its headquarters in a Palestinian convention center named the "Peace Center".[4]

The militants were divided into six groups, based on affiliation. They kept contact with the outside world using cellphones. They slept on the church floor and in the monks' rooms. The restrooms broke several times due to the disrupted water supply.[5] A fire broke out near the church. The IDF said it was provoked by Palestinian gunmen, and that Palestinians had opened fire from a bell tower, wounding two Israeli Border Policemen in a nearby rooftop look-out. An IDF officer said the Israeli troops returned fire and a smoke grenade started the blaze in a second-floor meeting hall overlooking the Basilica of St Catherine, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. One Palestinian militant was reported shot dead.[6]

On April 7, the Vatican City warned Israel to respect religious sites in line with its international obligations. Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican was following events "with extreme apprehension". A spokesman for Catholic monks in the Holy Land accused the Israeli soldiers of "indescribable act of barbarity". The Pope urged people to pray for peace in the Middle East and described the violence as having reached "unimaginable and intolerable" levels. Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, said the Israeli soldiers would not "defile the holiness of the site as the [Palestinians] have". He also said that the troops would remain in place until the militants inside were captured. British Foreign Office Minister, Ben Bradshaw described Israeli actions in the area as "totally unacceptable".[6]

April 16 saw the fiercest exchange of fire near the building since the beginning of the siege. One man was wounded in the stomach and another suffered from epilepsy. They were evacuated to a hospital.[7] Two Japanese tourists wandered into the church perimeters by mistake, and were rescued by journalists.[8] One sixteen year old Palestinian, Jihad Abu-Qamil, ran away from the church and gave himself up to the IDF.[9]


On April 20, the Greek Orthodox Church called upon Christians worldwide to make the upcoming Sunday a "solidarity day" for the people in the church and the church itself, and called for immediate intervention to stop what it referred to as the inhuman measures against the people and the stone of the church. It also asked Christians, Muslims and Jews to gather at the main entrance to Bethlehem and march to the church.[10]

On April 23, negotiations to end the siege began in the Peace Center.[11] The negotiations were mediated by the Archbishop of Canterbury's representative in Bethlehem, Canon Andrew White.[12] The Israelis placed the negotiations in the hands of IDF colonel Lior Lotan, a lawyer by profession. At first, Yasser Arafat appointed Salah Tamari to head the negotiation team. Tamari rejected Israel's demands to hand over a list of the besieged militants, but then found out that Arafat had given Daoud a contradicting order. Arafat also appointed another negotiation team, headed by Mohammad Rashid.[13]

After two days of negotiations, the Palestinians were willing to discuss a possible deportation of the militants in the church to what a senior official called a "friendly foreign country".[14] The next day, four militants gave themselves up, after which an exchange of fire took place, in which two Palestinians were wounded.[15] On April 30, Israeli officials said the at least thirty people would soon exit the church. Israel said it wanted to try them within Israel, or alternatively exile them. The Palestinians demanded that those men be moved to the Gaza Strip and others passed under Palestinian Authority control for trial.[16]

On May 1, twenty-six people came out of the church. Olivier Rafowicz, an IDF spokesman, said one of them was a senior Palestinian security official. He was taken away for questioning.[17] On May 2, ten international activists, including members of the International Solidarity Movement, were succesful in their attempts to bypass soldiers and enter the church, where they announced they intended to remain until the IDF lifted the siege. The next day, another group of international activists delivered food and water, which were in short supply among those inside.[18] On May 5, British and American diplomats arrived. It was suggested that about ten of the militants would be exiled to Jordan. Meanwhile, the IDF said it had found a large amount of explosives in an apartment about 200 meters from the church.[19] Between six and eight of the militants were to be exiled to Italy, while as many as forty others were to be sent to Gaza. The remaining were to be freed.[20] The agreement fell through on May 8, after Italy refused to accept thirteen militants. The Italian government said it had received no formal request to take them.[21]

On May 9 it was agreed that twenty-six men militants were to go to the Gaza Strip, eighty-five civilians were to be checked by the IDF and then released and the thirteen most wanted, including Daoud, would remain in the church, monitored by a European Union official, until they could be moved to Italy and Spain, after those countries agreed in principle to accept them. Al-Madani was the first to walk out of the church.[22]


On May 10, the thirteen men left the church, and were greeted by Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain's Ambassador to Israel, plus thirty members of the Royal Military Police and an RAF woman doctor.[23] They handed over their guns to the IDF behind a curtain, to avoid the photographers. They were not allowed to say goodbye to their families before their exile.[4]

During the siege, eight Palestinians were killed, and an Armenian monk was wounded by an Israeli sniper. Israeli riot police reported finding forty explosive devices which had been left in the church by the Palestinians, several of them booby-trapped. Also, Father Nicholas, a Franciscan monk from Mexico, reported that the Palestinians took icons, candlabras, candles, and prayer books, "whatever looked like gold". Some of the items were returned. In the parking lot beneath the Peace Center, Israeli soldiers had caused heavy damage to dozens of cars. Soldiers also vandalized Arafat's office in the presidential palace in the city.[4] ICOMOS estimated the damage at a total of US$1.4 million, primarily grades 3 and 4, and loss in urban furniture. Direct damage to the church complex from projectiles and fire was estimated to total about US$77,000.[24]


  1. Harel and Isacharoff (2004), p. 247
  2. Harel and Isacharoff (2004), pp. 247-248
  3. La Guardia, Anton (2002-04-04). "Bloody siege of Bethlehem". Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Harel and Isacharoff (2004), p. 249
  5. Harel and Isacharoff (2004), p. 248
  6. 6.0 6.1 Reynolds, James (2002-04-04). "No let-up in Bethlehem siege". BBC. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  7. "Heavy gunfire near Bethlehem church". BBC. 2002-04-16. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  8. "Backpackers baffled by Bethlehem siege". BBC. 2002-04-17. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  9. Philps, Alan (2002-04-20). "Survivor's tale of the siege of Bethlehem". Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-10-09. 
  10. Dymond, Johnny (2002-04-20). "Church seeks action on Bethlehem siege". BBC. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  11. "Timeline: Bethlehem siege". BBC. 2002-05-10. Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  12. Shiloh, Tamar (2002-05-09). "Bethlehem siege: Inside the negotiations". BBC. Retrieved 2008-10-09. 
  13. Harel and Isacharoff (2004), pp. 248-249
  14. "No breakthrough in Bethlehem talks". BBC. 2002-04-25. Retrieved 2008-10-09. 
  15. "Fresh fighting in Bethlehem". BBC. 2002-04-26. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  16. "One of Largest Groups of Palestinians Now Being Released From Church of Nativity". 2002-04-30. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  17. Huggler, Justin (2002-05-01). "Twenty-six Palestinians emerge from Nativity siege". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  18. Sandercock, pp. 80-81.
  19. "Breakthrough 'soon' in Bethlehem siege". BBC. 2002-05-04. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  20. Goldenberg, Suzanne (2002-05-06). "End to Bethlehem siege in sight". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  21. Reeves, Phil (2002-05-08). "CIA blamed as deal to end Bethlehem siege falters". The Independent. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  22. Cowell, Alan (2002-05-09). "Exile Agreement Appears to Settle Bethlehem Siege". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  23. Beaumont, Peter (2002-05-12). "Focus: How a British coup ended siege". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 
  24. "Destruction in the West Bank, April 2002". ICOMOS. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 


  • Harel, Amos; Avi Isacharoff (2004). The Seventh War. Tel-Aviv: Yedioth Aharonoth Books and Chemed Books. ISBN 9655117677 9789655117677.  (Hebrew)
  • Sandercock, Josie (2004). Peace under fire: Israel/Palestine and the International Solidarity Movement (Illustrated ed.). Verso. ISBN 1844675017, 9781844675012. 

Further reading

  • Hammer, Joshua (2003-09-08). A Season in Bethlehem : Unholy War in a Sacred Place. Free Press. p. 288. ISBN 0743244133. 

External links

Coordinates: 31°42′17″N 35°12′28″E / 31.70472°N 35.20778°E / 31.70472; 35.20778

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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