Rumours of a breakthrough in Bethlehem prove groundless


THE MIDDLE EAST: Michael Jansen watched developments outside the besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

It was another long, hard day at the barricade on Pope Paul VI Street, gazing at the besieged Church of the Nativity. The news in the morning was excellent: a deal had been brokered for the resolution of the five-week stand-off. Thirteen Palestinian militants were to go to Italy, 26 to Gaza.

The atmosphere was cheerful in the narrow, cobbled street, obstructed by bullet-riddled cars and strewn with piles of garbage. Bits of glittering glass crackled under foot. The morning had a good feel to it.

Even the remark of a pessimistic colleague did not dampen our spirits. "The Italians don't want the 13. It seems the Vatican made the offer without consulting the government," he said.

"Never mind," he added, "it seems the Egyptians have offered to take them for 48 hours until a permanent country of refuge is negotiated."

Palestinians related to the potential deportees slipped into our midst. One, a pretty 12-year-old girl, carrying a small boy, was staring at the the tiny, black Door of Humility in the stone wall of the church, weeping.

"Why are you crying?" I asked. She shrugged. I offered her a tissue. She smiled a little and gave her name as Jihan Samet (pictured above). "My cousin is in there. I want to see him before he is deported," she said.

A woman in headscarf and conservative dress, Ms Tamam Abayat (41), pushed herself between the press and Jihan.

"All my uncles are going to Italy," she said. "Of the 13, 10 are from one family. It's better for them to die in the church than to accept this agreement." She said there are two Ibrahim Abayats on the list. The younger is a senior member of the secular al-Aqsa Brigades, the armed wing of the mainstream Fatah movement of President Yasser Arafat. The elder is a Hamas activist.

Throughout the morning I was in constant telephone contact with Ms Isolde Moylan, the Irish representative to the Palestine Authority, who, along with the consular section of the embassy in Tel Aviv, was on call to look after the interests of Ms Mary Kelly, the Cork nurse who entered the church on May 3rd. Ms Moylan was liaising with representatives of Britain, Netherlands, Denmark, Canada and the US, the home countries of the other peace activists acting as "human shields" for the Palestinians in the church.

In a brief conversation, she told me: "We don't know what's going on. Nothing is moving here."

But at 12.30 p.m. Ms Georgina Reeves of the International Solidarity Movement, which sent its volunteers into the church, told me: "It's going down imminently."

I hurried to the barricade and climbed an abandoned ladder. The Israeli army announced that the evacuation of the church would begin at 2 p.m. But an hour and a half later, there was no sign of movement. I descended the ladder and went in search of a more comfortable perch with a view of the church and the square. I found a lovely roof, occupied in the main by the BBC, al-Jazira and ABC television. It was a perfect vantage point until the television teams, which had rented the roof, expelled all interlopers.

Israeli soldiers came and checked the adjacent roof. "This will be the press centre when the time comes," announced spokesman, Lieut-Col Oliver Rafowicz.

Rumours were rife: "The internationals refuse to leave before the rest and they want guarantees that they will not be mistreated," one source said. "Palestinian policemen are prepared to surrender their weapons but the Palestinian Authority insists that they must be returned by the Israelis," another informant advised.

When Lieut-Col Rafowicz revealed that the real problem was the lack of a host country for the 13, I decided to call it a day.

Bethlehem's mayor, Mr Hanna Nasser, said: "They're negotiating very seriously and very hard."

I looked at the rubbish floating in the stagnant green water in the Peace Fountain and begged a lift back to Jerusalem with weary colleagues. At the checkpoint on the Kiryat Arba Road an Israeli officer examined our press cards and passports carefully and peered into the boot before waving us on.