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Bethlehem tales of life under fire

Two groups of Palestinians emerged from the Church of the Nativity this week.

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On April 2, as Israeli forces invaded Bethlehem, a lanky, dark-haired teenager named Omar Habib left his apartment to get some medicine for his mother. His way home blocked by Israeli troops, he sought shelter in the Church of the Nativity.

That first night was the worst, he says. Armed Palestinians guarded the gates and doors of the ancient church, fearing an Israeli intrusion. Instead of incense and quiet, there was the smell of smoke and the sound of gunfire. Israeli flares sporadically lit the darkness of the sanctuary.

Mr. Habib huddled near an entrance to the grotto that Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus, and waited for daylight.

Twenty-three days later, Habib emerged from the church, along with eight other young men. So far this week, 28 additional people have walked out. Along with their survival-of-the-fittest tales of life inside, Habib and others are disputing Israeli assertions that Palestinian gunmen are holding clergy and civilians as hostages.

Habib was among the first large group freed as a result of negotiations to end a bitter standoff. Perhaps as many as 150 people – clergy, civilians, and members of Palestinian security forces and militant groups – remain inside the church. Israeli forces, adamant that two dozen or so of the holdouts be handed over for trial or sent into exile, remain outside.

Broken doors

Jamal Yousef Musallam, a member of the Palestinian Preventative Security force who came out of the church Monday with 25 others, says those inside are "one body," a sentiment echoed by colleagues freed with him.

Given that they took cover in the church after fighting Israeli troops, and remained armed while inside, occasionally firing at the Israelis, their testimony could hardly be considered impartial. Habib's credibility seems more solid, in part because he claims to have had no involvement in politics and also because of his apparently frank description of the law-of-the-jungle atmosphere inside the church.

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