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Nativity Church deportees 'did not sign agreement' to be exiled

May 26, 2012 12:57 P.M. (Updated: May 28, 2012 2:09 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma’an) -- A group of Palestinians deported to Gaza after the Nativity Church siege in 2002 on Saturday disputed claims by a former economic adviser that they had signed an agreement to be exiled.

The 26 deportees told Israeli forces during the siege that only Yasser Arafat could negotiate on their behalf, denying claims that they themselves gave their approval to be deported, a statement said.

Muhammad Rashid, former presidential economic adviser to Arafat, on Friday told Al-Arabiya TV channel that the group had agreed to be deported and that he fully accepted responsibility for the agreement, which Arafat had authorized him to negotiate.

The committee appointed by Arafat to negotiate with the Israelis "almost reached an agreement to deport only 6 activists to the Gaza Strip, but other people were carrying out secret negotiations behind the scenes which ended in the deportation of 39 activists to the Gaza Strip and Europe," the group of Gaza deportees said.

The official PA negotiating committee was headed by Salah Taamari, who was then governor of Bethlehem.

He told Ma'an TV in May that the deportation deal was reached without his knowledge and recalled his shock when Israeli officials told him Palestinians would be exiled.

The deportees urged the Palestinian Authority to expose all details of the 2002 deal, calling on the PA to prove whether there had been a written or verbal agreement between the two sides.

"If there was no written agreement, that would be a serious mistake by Muhammad Rashid, especially since the agreement was monitored by the US, the UK and the EU, and it was applauded by the Vatican," the group said.

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.

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.
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