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Two sides, two stories, one church

Church of the Nativity standoff underscores the wider divide

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As Israel's offensive in the West Bank enters its 12th day, an armed standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity conveys anew how desperate the strife is becoming: Even shrines are battlegrounds.

Each side's understanding of the standoff also reflects the larger ways in which Israelis and Palestinians refuse to consider the validity of each other's claims to the land that is at the heart of their conflict.

In the Israeli version, to use the words of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian "murderers ... have commandeered the church and are holding the clergymen hostage." In the Palestinian version, fighters, clergy, and civilians are defending themselves and their church from an Israeli invasion. Bethlehem is the center of Palestinian Christianity.

Asked if noncombatants inside the church were free to go, Rev. Amjad Sabbara, the Catholic custodian of the church, replies: "Why do we have to leave? We are the custodians of this house, this holy place." One of the most sacred sites in Christendom, the Church of the Nativity is revered by many as the birthplace of Jesus.

"It's horrible what's happening here," said Father Amjad, speaking by telephone yesterday from the church. He described a gunfight early yesterday morning that killed a Palestinian policeman, injured two Israeli border policemen, set a parish building ablaze, and damaged a sixth-century mosaic.

Peter Qumri, director of the general hospital that serves Bethlehem, says the Israeli military would not allow ambulance workers to remove the policeman's body; Amjad says it remains in the church.

In another example of the up-is-down rhetoric of recent days, the Israelis have labelled their ongoing reoccupation of nearly all the urban areas of the West Bank "Operation Defensive Shield." At the same time, Palestinians are using a new name for Israel's military, which is known as the Israel Defense Forces. It is the Israel Offensive Forces.


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