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10 years on from Nativity Church siege, deportees 'forgotten'

May 10, 2012 12:05 A.M. (Updated: May 11, 2012 2:15 P.M.)
By: Jenny Baboun
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Ten years after Israel exiled 39 Palestinians taking refuge in Bethlehem's Nativity Church, deportees say they have been forgotten by Palestinian leaders.

On May 10, 2002, Israeli forces ended a 39-day siege on the church after striking a deal with Palestinian leaders to send 39 people given sanctuary in the church to Gaza and Europe.

When Israeli tanks surrounded Bethlehem on April 2, 2002, around 220 locals -- including around 40 priests and nuns -- took shelter in the church. Over the next 39 days, eight Palestinians were killed inside the church and 27 others injured.

The siege on the site believed to be Jesus' birthplace sparked outrage in the Vatican as monks sheltering inside pleaded for international assistance.

Former Bethlehem Governor Salah Tamari headed the negotiations team to end the siege, and told Ma'an TV the deportation deal was reached without his knowledge.

He recalled his shock when Israeli officials told him Palestinians would be exiled, and said he called the office of President Yasser Arafat to resign as chief negotiator.

Israeli officials had demanded a list of names of everyone in the church, Tamari said.

"Since the first moment, we refused to give any names. We told [the Israelis] if you have anyone who's wanted, give us their names and we'll see if their charges affect the Palestinian law, we'll hold them accountable."

Rafat Obayyat was one of 27 Palestinians injured by Israeli attacks on the church. He is in a wheelchair due to his injuries.

He told Ma'an the grotto was the safest place in the church during the siege. Food was scarce and small amounts of pasta would be rationed between everyone, he added.

After a decade in exile, deportees say they have been abandoned by the Palestinian Authority and all political factions. They have not been allowed to return to their families in the West Bank.

Deportees had planned to demonstrate on Thursday but canceled the protest to stand beside prisoners on hunger strike, spokesman for the group Fahmi Kanan said at a press conference on Monday.

Instead, deportees will go on a 3-day hunger strike on Thursday in solidarity with detainees in Israeli jails, Kanan said.

'A dangerous precedent'

Former detainee and researcher Abdul Nasser Farwaneh said the deportation deal was a clear violation of international law and human rights.

The Palestinian leadership's acceptance of the deal to send Palestinians into exile set a dangerous precedent and over the last decade Israel has deported hundreds more Palestinians, Farwaneh said in a statement.

He urged the international community to send a commission of inquiry into Israel's siege on one of the world's holiest sites.

He also called for greater efforts to bring the deportees home and said the ongoing failure to bring them back from exile reflected Palestinian indifference to the issue.
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