ON A sunny morning in May 2002, 13 Palestinian men, looking bedraggled and exhausted, stepped off an RAF transport plane at Larnaca airport, in Cyprus. They had arrived from Tel Aviv, in Israel. Their immediate destination was a hotel, where they were to await deportation to various European countries.
The departure of the 13 Palestinians, all wanted by Israel for their alleged part in acts of violence, marked the end of the siege of the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem — an event that captured the attention of the world at the time. In April, about 200 Palestinians fleeing from advancing Israeli forces had taken refuge in the church, joining monks, priests, and nuns who were already there. Israel was quick to put the church and its environs under siege.
Hanan Isa was a schoolgirl at the time; her family lived five minutes from Manger Square and the Nativity Church. The day the siege began, she was getting ready to go to school as normal. “I went out on to the balcony to fetch my dad’s shoes,” she remembers. “I saw Israeli tanks in front of the church, and I froze. I was shocked and very frightened. My mother tried to assure me that we would be safe.”
From that day on, for more than a month, Bethlehem was under strict curfew, with Israeli snipers in position at high points in the square.
“My dad worked in a bakery, and got paid at the end of each day,” Ms Isa says. “He couldn’t work; so we were earning no money. It was like that for many people.”
As the siege continued into May, Israeli snipers, using laser lights, managed to shoot several people inside the church. The big question, though, was whether Israeli forces would storm the building to capture the Palestinians on their wanted list.
A former Mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, says that, if the Palestinians had been sheltering in any other structure, the Israelis would have stormed it without delay. “Because the building was the Holy Nativity Church — one of the most sacred of Christian shrines — they knew that the world was watching. The Israelis attacked the church with snipers, but they didn’t storm it because they had the eyes of the world on them.”
In the mean time, the besieging forces set up loudspeakers, blasting music, and the sounds of sirens and dogs barking around the church, hoping to unsettle those inside. Conditions in the building were deteriorating fast. Twenty years after the event, a Franciscan monk, Fr Ibrahim Faltas, still remembers vividly how difficult life became. “They were the harshest, most cruel conditions anyone could ever go through. None of us dared to think we would make it out alive. We existed for 39 days without water or food or electricity, and in constant fear. It’s nothing anyone can begin to imagine.”
He continues: “It was a battle to stay alive. We were battling death. We ate lemon-tree leaves because they say they suppress the appetite.”
To make matters worse, those in the church had to deal with the corpses of eight Palestinians who had been killed by snipers, and try to treat 27 people who were injured. The first two corpses remained in the church for 17 days, before the besieging forces allowed them to be taken out for burial.
International negotiators began seeking a way to end the siege, initially without success. Eventually, after the intervention of European diplomats, a deal was reached. The 13 most wanted men, under a European guarantee, would be disarmed and sent into exile; others would be sent to the Gaza Strip.
When the siege was eventually lifted, on 10 May, Israeli forces withdrew from Manger Square. Gradually, international attention focused on other events in the world. Twenty years on, with war in Ukraine and a global economic crisis, it is likely that few people remember the Nativity Church siege, 20 years ago.
But Palestinians have not forgotten. Ms Isa, now an adult, says: “Nobody who lived through those 40 days of the siege will ever forget them.”
Fr Faltas goes further: “It has been 20 years since the siege, and we’re still living it now. I remember every little detail. This siege will stay carved in the history of Bethlehem and the Nativity Church.”