Israel Report

April 2002         

The Nativity Sin

War crimes in Bethlehem.

By Ariel Cohen - April 26, 2002
Taking clergy hostage at gunpoint in a church is a war crime and violation of international law. This is exactly what Palestinian terrorists have done at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, one of Christianity's holiest sites. Over 50 gunmen took 200 hostages and locked them up, half-starving, in the sprawling church complex. Instead of decrying this act of barbarity, church representatives and spokesmen from a number of foreign ministries around the world blamed Israel.

On April 2, leaders of Palestinian terrorist organizations, which are on the U.S. Department of State "wanted" list, fought their way into the Church of the Nativity. Hamas leaders include Ibrahim Abayat, a senior operative and recruiter; Aziz Jubran, a notorious bomb builder; and Jihad Jaara, a weapons dealer. All of these terrorists have murdered innocent civilians.

Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)'s Tanzim militia leaders also inside the church include another Ibrahim Abayat, this one nicknamed Abu Galif; Abdalah Tirawi, the head of the Palestinian "general intelligence service" in Bethlehem; Kamel Hassan Hamid, Fatah general secretary for Bethlehem, a weapons dealer and a "money bag" for terrorist operations. These are all Arafat's men, all involved in recent suicide bombings in Israeli neighborhoods, including in Beit Israel, Kiryat Yovel, and Gilo.

Over the last two weeks, 25 Palestinians, including some gunmen, have surrendered. But hard-core thugs are still holding clergy and innocent civilians hostage to protect themselves. They are denying hostages the remaining food and water. They have denied sick priests medical care. They have stolen church artifacts and fired on a Palestinian youth who tried to escape from the compound over rooftops. On Monday, one of the priests lifted a sign in the window, saying, "Help us!"

Using priests and nuns as human shields in the most sacred location for Christianity is not just barbaric. It is a violation of the 1977 First Protocol to the Geneva Convention and is a war crime. Similar cases from the Balkan wars are heard today before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Only brutal terrorists would desecrate religious shrines and hurt clergy, but it's familiar from this crowd, as the bombing of a church in Islamabad in March by bin Laden supporters demonstrated. Five were killed, including two Americans. In the Djerba Island synagogue bombing in Tunis, a cooking-gas truck was crashed into the building, killing 16, most of them German tourists, including several children. And on Easter eve, 29 Israelis were murdered and almost 200 wounded in the "Passover massacre" in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya.

Christians have long been targeted in the Middle East. Thousands of churches were destroyed during the Arab conquest in the seventh century. Ten thousand Lebanese Christians were massacred in 1860s, while over 100,000 were killed in the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. Thousands of women were raped. That war was provoked by Yasser Arafat's PLO.

The story of the village of Dammur, where 500 Lebanese were massacred, primarily boys, and whose population was expelled in an ethnic cleansing, symbolizes treatment of Christians in the Middle East. But instead of an international arrest warrant, of course, Arafat received a Nobel Peace Prize. Nine hundred thousand Lebanese left the once-prosperous country during and after the civil war, altering its character forever. The vast majority of them were Christians.

In other corners of the region, ethnic and religious cleansing is a reality. The hard-line Muslim government of Sudan, which harbored Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, murdered between one and two million Sudanese Christians and animists in the south of the country. Christian Copts of Egypt, the descendants of the pharaohs, Assyrians, and Armenians are persecuted, their churches burned down, their communities scattered from Paris to California. Bethlehem, the site of the current holdup, was 70 percent Christian in the 1970s. Today it is close to 70 percent Muslim. Tensions are rising between Christians and Muslims in Nazareth. It seems that this is the scenario Arafat is preparing for Israel.

After all, it is Arafat's Tanzim and Al Aqsa leaders who are barricaded in the Church of the Nativity, as well as Hamas commanders who have been harbored by Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Christian leaders and Western diplomats from all over the world, begged him to facilitate the resolution of the hostage crisis. When he finally obliged to mediate, he suggested the safe passage of the terrorists — to Gaza.

This is hardly surprising. As anyone who has read The Godfather knows, the mafia boss will always do his best to protect his capos. And Arafat was reportedly called by a senior U.S. official in the region a "capo di tutti cappi" — the boss of bosses. Earlier this week, he watched approvingly as Palestinians convulsed in blood, as street executions of alleged collaborators with Israel — or just moderate Palestinians — were spreading from Ramallah to Hebron.

The Bethlehem standoff teaches one other lesson. The international community, the United Nations, and its "peacekeepers" on the ground, don't have the guts to stand up to Arafat's goons — as they did not stand up to terrorists on the Israeli-Lebanese border when Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers in the fall of 2001. Deployment of foreign peacekeepers will achieve only one goal — protecting Arafat and harboring his terrorists, including those who are holding monks hostage in Christianity's most sacred church.

— Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an NRO contributing editor.

©2002 - National Review

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