Bethlehem siege men on the cause they served


In an exclusive interview, the two Palestinian militants who were given refuge in Ireland after the siege at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity talk to Deaglán de Bréadún

It's a quiet, unremarkable house in south Dublin. Outside, suburban-dwellers go about their business, shopping, walking the dog and mowing the front lawn.

Little do they know that two men reviled as terrorists by the Israeli government are sitting on armchairs in a nearby drawing room. The turmoil of the Middle East never seemed farther away, as Jihad Jaara (31) and Rami Kamel (22) talked about their experiences.

The sequence of events which brought them to Ireland began in early April when these two Palestinian militants took refuge from the Israeli army in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, sanctified for two millennia as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The siege lasted five weeks and part of the deal for bringing it to an end was the deportation of these men with 11 of their comrades, first to Cyprus and from there to countries of the European Union. Ireland agreed to take two from the group.

Although they are in relaxed mood, you can see the pair have been through the mill. Kamel was keeping his right hand in his pocket and I wondered momentarily if he was carrying a weapon. But it turned out he didn't actually have a right hand. He described how he bought a gun from an Israeli dealer last October but it was booby-trapped and when he tried to use it, it blew his hand off. He is currently being fitted for an artificial hand.

Jaara is also in a bad way. A type of surgical cage surrounds his right leg which also has several pins protruding from it. He says he was wounded during exchanges with Israeli soldiers outside the Bethlehem church and claims a dum-dum bullet was used, in defiance of international law. He was shot just above the ankle and received no medical treatment during his 39 days under siege, apart from the assistance of the priests and an Irish nurse, Mary Kelly, who entered the church and stayed as a gesture of solidarity.

Nor was he treated during the 12 days the group of militants spent waiting in Cyprus. On his arrival at Dublin Airport last month, he was taken straight to hospital for surgery. Medical personnel marvelled that he had been able to prevent infection with limited supplies of salt and water. He will be able to walk in three months.

Food and supplies were so short in the church that at one stage they were making soup from grass. Their situation was so bleak that, in Kamel's words, "We felt at one time there was no difference between death and life." They survived on food given by the priests who run the church and from supplies brought in by an international solidarity group.

The same day that Jaara arrived in Ireland and underwent emergency surgery, his wife was giving birth to their fourth child back in Bethlehem. He tells me the boy was named Samed, meaning "steadfast", in the hope that he would be steadfast in the Palestinian cause.

Both hold officer rank in the police services of the Palestinian Authority: Jaara is a major in the Palestinian preventive security police headed by Jibril Rajoub; Kamel is more junior. Both received military training in the US, in accordance with the terms of the Oslo peace accords.

Jaara took two courses organised by the CIA. He was a bodyguard for five years with the leader of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Faisal Husseini, who died of a heart attack last year. In that capacity Jaara attended meetings with Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Jaara does most of the talking (his first name, Jihad, sounds lurid to Western ears, but it is a common name in Arabic.) Speaking through an interpreter, he says: "We are very, very happy to be in Ireland and very grateful to the Government and to those authorities who have been looking after us. I feel we are staying among friends: the people looking after us are very kind."

Kamel intervenes: "On a personal note, I was happy to know I was coming to Ireland because I know the Irish people are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause."

Although they are not allowed to leave the jurisdiction, there are no other restraints on their movements. They have permission to remain here for an initial period of 12 months, following which they can apply for an extension. They have no idea how long they will stay.

"God willing, I would like to go back sooner rather than later," says Jaara. He has no plans at this stage to bring his family over but that could change. Kamel, who is not married, belongs to a family of 10 children. At the moment, the medical treatment both are undergoing takes up a fair bit of time but when that is over they plan to take English classes.

They are still concerned for their personal security and decline to be photographed at this time. While they say they are never bored, the weather is clearly a difficult proposition. "It is the only country in the world where I have never seen the sun," says Jaara with a wry smile.

The Israeli government claims the members of the Cyprus group were involved in a whole series of terrorist outrages. Their defenders point out that they have not been tried or convicted of anything. I put the allegations to the two men and of course they rejected the claims.

"The Israelis are always lying," says Jaara. "They tell lies on other nations, not only the Palestinians. Everybody knows we are the victims of this war; they always claim they are the victims and the innocent ones."

I asked Jaara specifically about the killing of Avi Boaz, an elderly Israeli-American who lived near Bethlehem, but he strongly denied any involvement, describing Boaz as "a very good man". He says he has many Israeli friends: "I am against killing any Israeli civilian but I will do everything possible to defend my country, which is occupied by Israel."

Kamel likewise rejects Israeli claims: "All the Palestinians are terrorists in the eyes of the Israelis."

They also denied being anti-Semitic. "We are not against the Jews, we are against the Israeli government and, in particular, against the brutal acts being committed by Prime Minister Sharon."

I asked Jaara how he felt about the killing of an Israeli girl in a suicide bombing at Herzliya, a district of Tel Aviv, early this week: "I am strongly against killing any Palestinian or Israeli young children." Palestinian children had also been killed by the Israelis.

Asked about President Bush's somewhat hesitant moves to settle the conflict, Jaara says: "I hope the Americans will seriously intervene to force the Israelis to withdraw out of the Palestinian territories." He claims the current Israeli government has not demonstrated an interest in peace. Kamel says, "The beautiful towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem are being destroyed by Sharon."

Both men are strong supporters of Yasser Arafat. Asked for their reaction to the Israeli attacks on Arafat's headquarters, Jaara says: "It is the last nail in Israel's coffin if they touch Arafat." The President was "the symbol of Palestinian struggle". If he were harmed, "the Israelis will see things they have never seen before if they aim at Arafat's life. Every Palestinian will be a suicide bomber."