A Palestinian Christian Eyewitness Remembers the Israeli Military Siege of the Church of the Nativity
By Sharat G. Lin with Jiries Canavati in Bethlehem
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.”
In an opinion piece on “Israel and the plight of Mideast Christians” for the Wall Street Journal (March 9, 2012, p. A13), Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, claimed, “Palestinian gunmen seized Christian homes – compelling Israel to build a protective barrier between them and Jewish neighborhoods – and then occupied the Church of the Nativity, looting it and using it as a latrine.”
The fact is that 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.
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.”
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.”
So they came from the Catholic door. And the Father was a little late. So what happened was they shot the lock of the door and the opened the main door. They came inside. I was in Manger Square watching. I didn’t believe it. I was with my friends. And no one understood the situation. So we wanted to go back home.
I called my mom. “Mother, we are coming back home. How is the situation?”
She said, “Just don’t come back! Go away!”
I asked her, “What is going on?”
She said, “We have a lot of soldiers in our house. They occupied houses.”
We have three floors – one building. My cousins, my uncles, and my father — we live in three houses. There were 150 Israeli soldiers in those houses, and they stayed until the end – forty days – inside the home. So when they came to the Church of the Nativity, … I saw people just ran to the Church. They came to this path. I followed them. I had no chance [otherwise]. So we came though the Catholic door. The first group – we were like seventy. There was another group of maybe eighty. And the third group was a hundred. So we became altogether 248 people inside the Church.
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. They occupied the Peace Center , the Mosque [of Omar], the Bethlehem Municipality [offices], the whole neighborhood behind here. They occupied the Cassanova, the hotel for the Franciscans. They occupied the Terra Santa School. And behind the Church we have the Milgrota Church , we have Wy Sisters’ House, we have the Russian House, the Russian Hotel, and we have another building – the Multi-Catholic Society. And those were huge buildings and very high. So they occupied all the buildings and they put snipers everywhere.
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.
At the beginning people here were very tired and very afraid, but at the end they said, “We have no chance. This [staying in the Church of the Nativity] is the only chance we have. We have to pray. We have to survive. We have to do our best.”
The fathers for two or three days were afraid, but after that not. So what happened was the fathers said, “We would like to help, but don’t forget you are in a holy place and this is the Church of the Nativity. So we don’t want more problems and any damage to the Church.”
By the time they saw the situation, the terrible things, the fathers became more friendly. They gave us a lot of food. We took from them for ten days the food of the monasteries. We have three churches – Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic.
They opened everything and said, “Take whatever you want.” So we ate for ten days very good because the fathers just said, “Okay, take it.” But 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.
So after that we started to move from the field of the Church. Between the grass and the leaves, we started to move slowly until we reached the outer area. 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.
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. So this was what happened. We called him.
He said, “Okay, I would like to help. I have my ambulance car, and I can move. But what can I do? Just give me an idea.”
So we started to think. We found a way: the Beit Sahur Valley . We called people.
They said, “Okay, we will collect food there because the situation was more quiet than here.”
So they started to collect food from the houses, and then they gathered food at the medical center. The ambulance goes there to the medical center, carries bags in the ambulance, and then they bring as much as they can behind the Church of the Nativity. The young girls, 13 or 14 years of age, go walking at night. They carry bags from house to house, from house to house, until they reach the house which is in front of the Church. At night they carry the bags and then they throw them from the roof of the houses to the roof of the Church. We did that six or seven times to wait out thirty days. This is what happened.
Another mistake: One of the young girls got scared and she dropped a plastic bag in the street. She heard a soldier, so she ran away. The soldiers opened the food. They found rice, sugar, salt, bread, and all these things. So they closed everything, they occupied the houses, and they destroyed all these things. So we had no chance. I remember on the 28th or 29th [of April], we got eleven volunteers from the [Israeli] peace movement. On the 28th, they came through the main door, and they ran to the Church, to this part here. The governor of Bethlehem was inside, the fathers, and the director of the Catholic Society.
I asked him, “I saw people outside in the [Manger] Square.”
He said, “Open the door, open the door. I am the one who has the key.”
Why? Because the fathers cannot wake up at three or four in the morning when someone is injured or there is some problem.
So he said, “Take the key. Just follow orders from the governor and from the director of the Church.”
And then they say, “Open, open. Close, close.” So they said, “Open the door.”
I opened the door. People came inside. Eleven could come in, and seventeen were arrested by the Israeli soldiers. They were with their bags. There was some bread inside. They had also cameras. We took some pictures together. So we ate for four days together.
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.
Many times they tried to occupy the Church and to invade the Church. One time, I remember, from the Catholic section … That is the place where they meet on Sunday and where they have the paperwork of the Church if someone wants to get married, if someone wants to make baptism, or whatever. They came also through the Greek Orthodox monastery. 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?
The father and the governor said, “It is better for them to be in a hospital or in jail than to become dead bodies.” So until this moment they are still in prison.
Now, about the people who were killed – the first two dead bodies – we asked them, “Please, we have two dead bodies. Just take them.”
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. We moved up to the roof. We saw him on the floor. So me and my friend carried him to bring him inside the Church. He was on his back like that. There was a little hole in his face which was like very very small. You cannot see it. So when we turned his head [we saw] he was completely destroyed from the back side. He was killed immediately.
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.”
What happened was at the Catholic part there were some boxes. Inside were instruments from Italy donated to the Church. We came to the boxes. We took the pieces outside of the boxes. We cut the boxes. We made two coffins. We put the dead bodies inside. They stayed inside the Church of the Nativity for fifteen days with us until the Israeli soldiers and the leaders agreed. They said, “Okay, bring!” We opened the door and they took them – two dead bodies.
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.
Here the people inside the Church said, “We can stay here six months. No problem if we drink water with salt.”
The problem was what about our families? 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.
So they said, “At the end, we will accept any decision. It is not for us. But it is just for our families. We are here 248, but in this area we have 140,000. So we have to do something for them.”
And then they started to make a settlement through the CIA of America and the European Union.
They said, “We need a list with the names and the ID numbers.”
Se we put our names, ID numbers, and everything. And the CIA of American came at 3 o’clock in the morning. They took the list. They sent it to the Israeli leaders. At the end they showed that, “This one is dangerous. This one is not. This is wanted. This is not. This is a fighter. This is not.” They decided to send thirteen to Europe – they transferred them – and 26 to Gaza .
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.”
They brought all people here with the CIA in the morning at 6 o’clock. They opened the main door, one-by-one checking, pictures, inspecting your clothes and everything. They put them all in the buses. So they took the first thirteen to Europe . They sent the second 26 to Gaza . And they took the rest, like us, to the military point in Hebron . For two or three days, they made some investigation, and they released us. After that they put their names on the blacklist. They considered them “wanted” or “dangerous” anytime that you were here with fighters. They considered them as “bad” people. This is what happened.
So for me, I didn’t realize that it was really serious. What happened? 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.”
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.”
So this is the situation. I lived in prison. I lived between prisoners. I lived here in the siege. So I believe that everything that happened was just wasting time because both sides are suffering. The Israeli governments care about control, about money, about this and this and this. But who pays the price? The people. If you go to the Israeli people and ask them, they want peace. About Palestinians, most of them want peace. But for small amounts of people, like small groups or fanatics, you have to find a good solution for them. You have to stop them. Many innocent people from both sides were losing. Many innocent people were killed. And it is not a game. Our lives are a grace from God. I killed your brother. Tomorrow you kill my uncle.
When asked whether things have changed since 2002, Jiries Canavati told one more story:
[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.
The Israelis called the Palestinian leaders in Bethlehem and they said, “We are sorry. We will open the file and make some investigation. We will see what was going on and how this happened.” It was like a mistake.
Sharat G. Lin is president of the San José Peace and Justice Center. He writes on global political economy, the Middle East, India , and public health. He lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and spent time in Israel , Gaza , and the West Bank . Captured by a Palestinian militia in 1973, he has first-hand experience of their internal workings.