Flashback 2002: What Horror Really Happened in the Israeli Military Siege of the Church of the Nativity

Posted: November 11, 2013 in Uncategorized
View of The Church of the Nativity from Manger...

View of The Church of the Nativity from Manger Square. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There appears to be two sides to this story, although the American public only got one side. So we’ll present quotes from both sides and let you decide. Here’s the Israeli side of the story…

This Week in History: Church of the Nativity siege


04/01/2012 12:59

Purported birthplace of Jesus Christ became site of five-week standoff between IDF troops and Palestinian terrorists in 2002.

On April 2, 2002, a routine arrest raid in Bethlehem quickly spiraled into one of the most unexpected controversies resulting from an Israeli military operation in the past decade. Fleeing IDF troops, some 220 men and teenagers, among them dozens of armed Palestinian terrorists, took refuge in the city’s Church of the Nativity, which is said to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Palestinian terrorists had sought refuge in the church’s Manger Square a number of times during previous raids and had used the area to stage operations against Israelis on the outskirts of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The Palestinians believed that Israeli forces would not enter the square. When IDF troops advanced on the square, they entered the church, under the correct assumption that soldiers would not follow them inside.

The IDF was aware of the possibility that militants might flee into the revered sanctuary and had a plan to prevent it. A special forces unit was to be flown by helicopter to the entrance of the church to block anyone from entering it during the routine raid. The troops, however, arrived late and dozens of Palestinian militants and civilians made it inside the site.

Christmas Eve 2006 in Manger Square in Bethlehem.

Christmas Eve 2006 in Manger Square in Bethlehem. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The siege on the Church of the Nativity took place toward the beginning of Operation Defensive Shield, a widespread counter-terrorism operation to retake many Palestinian cities in the West Bank following a wave of deadly suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. The events in Bethlehem also coincided with the start of a siege on the Jenin Refugee Camp. Both incidents drew international condemnation at the time.

For weeks, the Palestinians refused to budge on their refusal to accept either surrender or exile for the fighters laid up in the church.

Light clashes took place regularly between the Palestinian terrorists inside the church and Israeli troops surrounding it. IDF snipers took aim at any terrorists who dared reveal themselves in windows or on the perimeter of the church. A number of Palestinians, a monk and two Israeli Border Police officers were wounded in the short, sporadic firefights.

During one incident, in an attempt to locate the source of nighttime gunfire from the church, the IDF fired a flare into the air, which set fire to a room in the holy site. A Palestinian militant who rushed to extinguish the fire was shot dead by an Israeli sniper. As violent incidents continued in and around the church, international pressure to end it mounted.

Another contentious point in the negotiations was what to do with the weapons Palestinians had brought into the church. The Palestinians refused to hand them over to Israel and Israel would not allow them to remain in Palestinian custody.


Now here’s the Palestinian side of the story…

For more pictures and videos of Israel and Pal...

For more pictures and videos of Israel and Palestine, please visit here. The Door of Humility leads into the Church of the Nativity (Basilica of the Nativitiy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Palestinian Christian Eyewitness Remembers the Israeli Military Siege of the Church of the Nativity
April 9, 2012 by occupiedpalestine

Ten years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in response to a rapid succession of suicide bombings by Palestinians inside Israel and against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, vowed revenge, calling for “an uncompromising war to uproot these savages.” Calling Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat “the enemy of the entire free world,” Sharon launched a sustained attack on Arafat’s official compound in Ramallah beginning on March 28, 2002. The military operation was part of an Israeli assault on the entire West Bank – Jenin, Nablus, Tulkaram, Qalqiliyah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and countless Palestinian towns – every city except Jericho.

On April 2, 2002 the Israeli military, having already encircled Bethlehem, entered Manger Square as part of a sweep of the entire city ostensibly to round up Palestinian militants and youths who might be considering a suicide operation. With hundreds of Palestinians – militants, priests, nuns, and civilians – cornered in Manger Square, they had nowhere to escape except into the sanctity of the Church of the Nativity – the site Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The deadly Israeli military siege of the Church (and of the entire city) had begun, and would last for forty days and forty nights.

Fearing damage to one of the holiest sites of Christianity, the Israeli army initially fired only small arms at some walls of the Church. But by mounting remotely controlled guns with high-resolution cameras atop three cranes, Israeli gunners were able to kill one-by-one several Palestinians trapped inside. One Israeli attempt to take the Church by force set off a large fire in the Greek Orthodox monastery.

While the suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians were misguided deviations in the then 54-year-old Palestinian resistance to occupation and in the Second Intifada, and cannot be justified, civilian locations were chosen because Israeli military targets were inaccessible. Needless to say, such suicide bombings neither can be justified, nor did they achieve the goal of lifting the Israeli occupation. In fact, on the contrary, the occupation has only become progressively more restrictive and draconian. At the same time, armed Palestinian resistance to occupation is no less understandable than the armed Jewish uprising led by Marek Edelman against the Warsaw Ghetto or the armed resistance led by Nelson Mandela against South African apartheid.

Despite this, in recent years, Palestinians supported by Israeli peace activists and internationals have been increasingly turning to nonviolent resistance against the wall, house and orchard demolitions, abusive and violent Israeli settlers, and the occupation itself. Witnessing the primarily nonviolent civil disobedience tactics of the continuing revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt has given a powerful boost to Palestinian nonviolent resistance and its embrace by the Palestinian leadership.

Nevertheless, the suicide attacks of 2002 gave Sharon the pretext to use armed force to reoccupy the West Bank. This is despite the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 which forbids collective punishment of an entire population for offenses of a few. Article 33 states: “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”

Palestinian Christian civilians were among those trapped inside the Church of the Nativity. They did not choose to occupy it. Fearing for their lives, they were left with no choice but to take refuge in the Church. It was not Palestinian gunmen, but Israeli soldiers who seized private homes in Bethlehem. The only “looting” inside the Church was the human consumption of food offered by the priests from the stores of the monasteries. No Palestinian, whether Muslim or Christian, acted intentionally to desecrate the Church. The stench that prevailed throughout much of 40-day siege was of unbathed men, the decaying bodies of those killed by Israeli snipers and remote-controlled guns, and the traces of vomit from those who got sick. It was a direct consequence of the Israeli military siege.

Jiries Canavati is the Christian owner of a gift shop on Milk Grotto Street beside the Church compound. He witnessed the siege from within. Speaking to me inside the Church of the Nativity, he recounts why 248 Palestinians took refuge in the Church, and provides a harrowing eyewitness account of what it was like to be trapped under the Israeli military siege. His narrative has been edited very slightly for clarity.

English: preparing for night raid, "Netza...

English: preparing for night raid, “Netzah Yehuda” recon company (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two weeks before April, Israeli soldiers were just preparing themselves with tanks, vehicles, soldiers, and they gathered themselves at the border [of the West Bank]. So they came on the first of April 12:00 midnight from all directions. They came from the Rachel Tomb, the checkpoint. They came from Beit Sahur where the Shepherd’s Field is. They came from al-Mukhabar village. They came from Beit Jala. They came from all the ways [directions].

Now, they cut the electricity in Bethlehem. And people, just to be honest with you, many of them were in the old town in the old center of Bethlehem. And they thought they were just watching a movie. They didn’t believe that soldiers are going to be here with tanks and that they will occupy the town – that it is really war.

So what happened was all the people were gathering in the town in the old center, in the old market. By 12:00 [midnight] to 1:00 [am] the helicopters came. They were shooting in all directions. They shot many people in the streets. Many young men were killed. No one could help. And I remember they shot many cars; they shot many houses. And by 2:00 to 3:00 [am] the tanks started to move toward Bethlehem from all directions. And I remember maybe 500 to 600 young men were in the old town of Bethlehem. By the time you saw people, they were shot in the streets. No one could help them. People from the first aid didn’t want to give help. No one helped them because they were shooting in all directions. So the situation became worse and worse. People had no chance. Almost 15 dead bodies were in the streets. They burnt cars and they burnt houses. All that is what happened.

At the end, one of the young men said, “We have no chance. You are talking about 500 to 1000 of the fighters. But we have 7,000 Israeli soldiers.”

View of Church of the Nativity in 1833

View of Church of the Nativity in 1833 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They came with their vehicles, their tanks, their equipment, and their Apaches [helicopters]. And they were shooting bombs. It was really war.

So one of the young men said, “So what do you suggest?”

He said, “Let us go find a place to hide just to survive.”

And they said, “We have no place. We are here surrounded by Israeli soldiers.”

One of the young men said, “Let’s talk about the Church of the Nativity.”

And they called the Father. The Father said, “We love to give help, but if you can reach this area with soldiers and tanks everywhere.”

At the end one of the young men said, “Okay, we will do something.”

So what happened [was that] they came from around the main part of the Church. We have the Peace Centre. We have the Mosque of Omar. We have the Bethlehem Municipality [offices]. Even in the Syrian Orthodox Church there were people inside, and in the Santana Church there were people inside, and in the Lutheran Church there were people inside. So those churches the soldiers occupied. They invaded those churches. Why? Because [they were] not so important like the Church of the Nativity.

So at the end one of the young men said, “The only chance we have is the Church of the Nativity.”

We thought we would stay one day, two days, maximum one week, and then the
Israeli soldiers will leave, and we will go back home. But in fact what happened
inside the Church was there were some armed people who belonged to the
Palestinian fighters and movements. So when the Israeli soldiers found out that
some of them were armed, they said we want those. They considered them as
“wanted.” So they started to siege the Church.

More than that, what happened was that they brought three high cranes. They put them in Manger Square. Electronic machine guns attached with telescopes and video cameras, and they controlled it by computer. So they see you on the screen when you just move outside here or there, they just press the button and they shoot you. This is the way they shot people. The kind of bullet they used was the dumdum. The dumdum is the one that splits inside. If it touches your hand, your leg, your face, or whatever, you are a dead body. You have no chance.

English: Unused candles in the Church of the N...

English: Unused candles in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Food inside the church became scarce after the church fathers made all food available to the Palestinians]…after ten days the fathers said, “Now we have a problem. We don’t have food to
give you.” Why? Because we are talking about 248 [people]. It is a big number.
If you have a big store, it will not be enough…We called some neighbors.

How did we charge the cellular phone? There was no electricity, no water, nothing at all. The only light inside the Nativity Church was the tower, the Christmas bells. Why? Because the tower is connected with the Bethlehem Municipality [offices]. It is the same line of electricity. Now, the soldiers were there at night. When they switched on the light, they gave us light, but they didn’t realize it. So one of the young men went up and he made a line and then he brought electricity to here. We started to charge the batteries. So we called some neighbors. They gave us food. But what happened was one of the young men was in the field. The soldiers saw him and they shot him. He was killed. They closed that area. So no one could move from that part. [Note: This is the same cruelty that the Urkainian farmers endured at the hands of the Soviets in the 1930s when they were surrounded and starved to death].

One of the young men said that his brother works at the medical center, so let’s talk to him. We called him. The only people who could move at that time were the ambulances. Why? Because it was curfew the whole time. Every week they gave two hours for you to collect some medicines, some food, and that’s it. If they see you during curfew time, they shoot you right away. [Note: This is the same police state treatment that American slaves were forced to endure during the cruelty of American slavery]. So this was what happened. We called him.

But the last one week – that was the worst and most terrible. No food at all. People started bleeding. Many people went to the use the bathroom. Everything they ate [went] “splat.” And I remember I was 79 [kilograms]. When I went outside of the Church, I became 63 [kilograms]. So in forty days, I lost 16 kilos. This is what happened.

Many people started to wake up in the morning screaming because they put loudspeakers and they started to bother people. They didn’t want anyone to sleep the whole day.

They burned the whole monastery. And many times they came through the walls. They put ladders and they started to come inside. Some of the people here started to shoot towards them [the soldiers] and they moved outside. This is
what happened.

People here respected all the decisions. Why? Because they said, “This is a holy place, so we have to respect the Church.” The Church protected the people here. It saved the people. They were following orders.

They used to call Arafat in Ramallah. Arafat said, “Please, don’t shoot from the Church! Just take care of this holy place. This is the most important place in the Holy Land.” And people followed orders.

But what happened was that Arafat told them, “At the end, if you feel that you are going to die, that they want to kill you, that you are in a very dangerous situation, just shoot to let them go away.”

By that time, nine were killed in this Church and 26 were injured. For those people who were injured, we started – the governor, the leaders, and the father – to talk to Israeli leaders. They opened the door. They [soldiers] took them. Why?

Now, about the people who were killed – the first two dead bodies – we asked them, “Please, we have two dead bodies. Just take them.”

Military checkpoint, Palestine

Military checkpoint, Palestine (Photo credit: delayed gratification)

The first one was killed at the Catholic roof. He didn’t know the Church. He didn’t realize there’s locked doors everywhere. So he moved up to the roof just to check if he can find a way to bring food or if he wanted to run away to escape. So what happened was the soldiers were at the Bethlehem 2000 Building. They shot him with one bullet. We heard the bullets.

And the second one was killed in the Casanova Guest House. He was looking for food. He said, “This is Casanova. This is a hotel for sure. I am going to find food.” They had nothing to eat. So what happened was he went down to bring food, and accidentally he found soldiers inside. He raised his head, and he saw the soldiers in front himself. They shot him with two bullets in the chest. We carried him. We brought him to here. He was 25 years old, married – wife and he has two daughters. All the time he cries like this, “My friend, I don’t want to die. Please help me! Do something! I’m still young. I miss my daughter. I want to see my wife. Please, please, please …” Five minutes, ten minutes maximum. You want to give to him. You want to support him. You have nothing! Bleeding, bleeding, and then he passed away. So those were the two dead bodies.

We asked the leaders, “Please! We have two dead bodies. Kindly respect our traditions. Just take them. Already finished. Just send them to their families. They want to bury them, to pray, whatever.”

They [the soldiers] said, “No. We don’t need them. Just keep them inside.”

English: Israeli military vehicle

English: Israeli military vehicle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of the people were shot from the cranes. Three of them were very accurate. If the first one misses, the second will touch immediately. This is what happened. They wanted to finish the problem.

Many people were shot in their houses. They found out that there were dead bodies after ten days or one week or two weeks. It started to smell. They opened the door. They found a young girl with her mother. They were shot through the windows from the Apaches [helicopters]. I called many families and many friends. No medicine, no food was at the houses. Everything was very very difficult.

The worst thing in this situation was what happened when Colin Powell came here. He said, “Okay, we want to finish the siege. We want to finish the crisis. Arafat is in big problems in Ramallah.”

Remember what happened in Jenin? They killed a lot of people. There was a case in the United Nations against the Israeli government because of what happened in Jenin. The Israeli government said, “We will accept anything you need. Just close that file and then we will agree to do whatever you want.” Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority said okay, they accepted it. So they closed that file in the United Nations, and then we lost that situation. After that they said, “Okay, let’s finish the siege.”

Armoured Recovery M-113 used by the IDF

Armoured Recovery M-113 used by the IDF (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Israel blacklisted all Palestinians who survived the siege, even if they were not fighters]. The siege started on the first of April, and the end was on the tenth of May. After two weeks on the 25th of May, soldiers came to my house and they started to look for me. They called to my mobile. I told them that I am not going to come. I thought that they were playing games with me. I didn’t do anything. So what happened? I am the only one [in my family] who works. My father passed away. I have my little daughter. She is seven years old. I have my mom. She is sick. I am the only one taking care of the family. So if I go there to surrender myself, what will happen is that maybe I will stay two, three years or five years in jail. No one will ask about it. My family then will have nothing to eat.

So I called Israeli leader. I talked to him and I told him that I am not going to surrender myself. They came maybe 15 times to my house. They destroyed my house. They destroyed furniture, my car, everything.

After that my family caught me and they said, “You have no chance. The last message from Israeli intelligence said, “If we see you anywhere, we will shoot you.” At the end, my family put more pressure, and they told me, “You have a daughter. Do something for your daughter, not for yourself!”

I told them, “What?”

They said, “You have to surrender yourself.”

Israeli army placing concrete blocks in Hebron

Israeli army placing concrete blocks in Hebron (Photo credit: delayed gratification)

I felt very upset, and then I went to the Israeli intelligence. Three of them with M16s came and carried me without any clothes and put me in jail. I spent five months in jail. And then they sued me. They gave me 30 months. I spent half of the time inside [jail], and then I paid money. My lawyer was a Jewish guy. He was a very very good one. He said, “If you want to pay money they might release you because you are a Christian guy. And then we will let the Church help you.”

So they charged me 70,000 shekels, which equalled 17,500 dollars. Then they released me. And they said, “Don’t do any problem. Don’t do this and this and this.”

I told them, “I am going back to take care of my mom, my daughter, my business, and thank you so much.”

When asked whether things have changed since 2002, Jiries Canavati told one more story:

August 31, 2011 The IDF Paratrooper Infantry B...

August 31, 2011 The IDF Paratrooper Infantry Brigade has a national reputation of operating under difficult and trying conditions, day or night. Photo by Cpl. Shay Wagner, IDF Spokesperson Unit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Not long ago] one of the young men was killed in Bethlehem. They buried him. If you ask why, you are not going to believe it. He was a [Palestinian] soldier with his uniform. He was in the street. He had to operate a [Palestinian Authority] checkpoint. They work with the tax department. They just check the cars, especially the big ones. When they bring goods, you have a tax invoice and you pay money for the [PA] government. So there was a van. They stopped the van. The driver didn’t want to stop, but wanted just to hit him. The Palestinian soldier just tried to open the door. When he opened the door, he found an Israeli Special Forces Unit with their machine gun. The Israeli soldier raised his weapon, and shot him with four bullets. He was afraid. The Palestinian soldier didn’t realize what was going on – that it was a Special Unit. He was 37 years old, married with children. And they killed him like that.







  1. […] Flashback 2002: What Horror Really Happened in the Israeli Military Siege of the Church of the Nativ…. […]

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