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Church of the Objectivity

A Newsweek article gives an overly fair shake to the gunmen who occupied the Church of the Nativity.

10:30 AM, May 17, 2002 • By DAVID TELL
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THE CURRENT NEWSWEEK has a long, cover-story retrospective on the siege of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. The piece is invaluable for its detail--but exasperating for the filter of "objectivity" through which correspondent Joshua Hammer apparently feels obliged to view his otherwise excellent work. The standoff in Manger Square, Hammer writes, "seemed to capture the essence of the Mideast struggle" generally: "a prolonged, seemingly insoluble dispute between two stubborn and distrustful enemies." You know--sort of an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand kind of thing.

On the one hand, for instance, there's the question whether dozens of civilians trapped in the church during the siege were--as Israel alleges--held hostage by the Palestinian gunmen among them. In Newsweek's account, this remains a matter of considerable ambiguity. Hammer writes that one of his principal sources, 16-year-old Bethlehem resident Omar Habib, "insists he never felt like a hostage."

On the other hand, however, Hammer acknowledges that "the pressures to stay were intense." Which "pressures" he illustrates with the following remarkable vignette:

"One night Bethlehem Gov. Muhammad Madani, who had entered the compound late on April 2 to investigate conditions and found himself trapped, gathered teenagers beside a pillar in the basilica. The Israeli Army was ready to accept a coordinated mass release of civilians. 'The Israelis say you are hostages,' he told them. 'I am prepared to let those who want to leave leave. Who wants to go?' All 20, Habib says, raised their hands. 'OK,' the governor said. 'I'll open the door.' But, he added, according to Habib, 'Whoever wants to leave will be considered a traitor and a lowlife. Those who stay will be heroes.' After that Habib says, nobody was willing to leave."

On the basis of such evidence, Newsweek's Hammer concludes that civilians in the church, though offered a chance to escape, "found themselves weighing their sense of duty against their growing desperation."

It seems a rather eccentric notion, this one: that Gov. Madani was merely appealing to "their sense of duty" when he told would-be evacuees they would be considered "traitors and lowlifes" if they fled. With them in the church at the time, after all, was one Ibrahim Moussa Salem Abayat, leader of Fatah's Tanzim terrorist brigade in Bethlehem. And Abayat's treatment of "traitors and lowlifes," local residents have since told Sayed Anwar of the Washington Times, was well known throughout the town. Writing from Bethlehem for the paper's May 13 edition, Anwar reports that "Residents of this biblical city are expressing relief at the exile to Cyprus last week of 13 hard-core Palestinian militants [led by Abayat], who they said had imposed a two-year reign of terror that included rape, extortion, and executions." Apparently, Abayat preyed on two groups in particular: Christian residents and businessmen--and Palestinians whose sense of duty, as Newsweek might say, he regarded as suspect.

Sayed Anwar quotes Zuhair Hamdan, a Bethlehem shopkeeper who founded the "Movement for Coexistence in Jerusalem," a peace group, describing in grisly detail how Abayat's men had wounded him in a drive-by automatic-rifle attack. Anwar further reports that shortly before the April 2 gunbattle that began the Manger Square siege, Abayat took nine local Muslims accused of "collaborating" with Israel into a Bethlehem apartment building and shot them to death. Abayat, according to the Times, has since personally acknowledged responsibility for these killings.

Abayat is also thought responsible--along with his associate Jihan Youssef Khalil Jaara--for the January 15, 2002, murder of Avi Boaz, an American citizen living in Israel. Nevertheless, consistent with the terms of a siege-ending agreement brokered by our own Central Intelligence Agency, both men, Abayat and Jaara, are for the moment resident, as "guests and free citizens," in a three-star hotel on Cyprus's Larnaca seafront. And there they will remain, along with eleven other now-exiled terrorists, until final arrangements can be made for their transfer to somewhat more permanent quarters on the European mainland.

Only trouble is: The Europeans, who caterwauled so loudly on behalf of Abayat and Co. during the siege, are suddenly changing their tune. No European country has yet agreed to accept even a single Palestinian now sunbathing in Larnaca. Shucks, says Gianfranco Fini, Italy's deputy prime minister, "If even half of what I read is true, we would be taking in some very dangerous people, indeed."