by DEBKAfile, 6 May 2002


A large number of badly wanted Palestinian gunmen were among the 200 people who dived into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem 35 days ago, just ahead of the incursion of Israeli troops and tanks, in the early days of Israel’s largest anti-terror operation against Palestinian West Bank towns. They claimed and received sanctuary in the Christian shrine.
Since then, the wanted men have been holed up in the church with a group of monks and nuns of various denominations, surrounded by Israeli tanks.

In the course of the siege, 6 gunmen were killed and 90 allowed to leave the church. Still inside are 123 gunmen, priests and others, who have been the object of feverish negotiations. Israel has demanded the handover of terrorists for trial before lifting the siege on the church and pulling its troops out of Bethlehem, the last Palestinian city from which they have not yet withdrawn. The Palestinians have been holding out.

In the past 48 hours, Palestinian sources have announced three times that the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to end the crisis have reached a successful conclusion. Three times the talks stalled, while various international go-betweens bustled between the parties.
Monday night, yet another announcement was trumpeted that a deal was all but in the bag. But this too may have been a negotiating tactic. DEBKAfile’s Palestinian sources report that Yasser Arafat has decided at the eleventh hour to withhold his signature on the all but completed accord. In essence, its terms permit the permanent exile of a small group of hard-core terrorists, known to have committed and masterminded many murders of Israeli civilians, to Italy or some other European country. Among them is the Tanzim militia commander of Bethlehem, Ibrahim Abayat, and senior Fatah and Force 17 militants from Hebron.
A second, larger group would be transferred to the Gaza Strip, away from its members’ strongholds in Bethlehem and Hebron.
According to our Washington sources, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, in between his meetings Monday, May 6, with US secretary of state Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ordered the Israeli negotiators to wind up the Bethlehem discussions before he meets President George W. Bush at the White House on Tuesday, May 7.

The Israeli team redoubled its efforts, faced with Palestinian negotiators willing to reciprocate and terminate the war of nerves.
Still, Monday night, two snags remained.

Arafat was unwilling to afford Sharon the advantage of being able to inform the US president that Israeli forces had withdrawn from every one of the West Bank towns entered during Operation Defensive Shield.

He was even more unwilling to let three of his senior aides enjoy the kudos of resolving the Bethlehem crisis. Those aides, his deputy Abu Mazen and financial adviser Mohamed Rashid and the Gaza Strip security chief, Muhamed Dahlan, stepped into the negotiations in the last three days to haul them out of deep stalemate. Their success will enhance each of their ratings as potential successors to Arafat as Palestinian leader.

The second snag is simply this. The Italian government denies having extending any invitations to the Bethlehem terrorists; no other European government has agreed to accept them either."