Palestinian Gunmen Threaten Bethlehem Christmas Preparations, Fuel Christian Flight

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Bethlehem’s Beleaguered Christians

The storming of Bethlehem’s town hall today by Palestinian gunmen affiliated with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade [see below] has raised concerns over the local Christmas celebrations that attract Christian pilgrims from all over the world to this West Bank city. The town hall sits adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

Although no one was hurt in the Bethlehem incident, which lasted about one hour until the gunmen agreed to leave the building after firing their weapons from its rooftop, it highlights the failure of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to rein in such armed terrorist groups that continue to act with impunity in the Palestinian territories. The actions of these militia groups in recent years, some of them avowedly radical-Islamic in character, have contributed to a flight of Palestinian Christians from the city spurred in great part by the Palestinian Authority’s deliberate Islamization of Bethlehem.

In the past decade Palestinian Christians, once 60 percent of Bethlehem’s population, have fled and currently represent less than 20 percent of the city’s total population. [1]

Although critics of Israeli policy have attempted to place blame for the Christian emigration on the implementation of such security measures at the anti-terror barrier, checkpoints and roadblocks, these were put into place only in the past few years in response to repeated terror attack from Bethlehem [see below], and cannot account for the dramatic drop in the Christian population between 1990 and 2001.

In 1990, Christians comprised nearly 60 percent of the total Palestinian population in the Bethlehem region. Palestinian Christians began to leave in large numbers after 1995, when the Palestinian Authority obtained control of the city, because they were discriminated against and encouraged to leave.

Then-PA Chairman Yasser Arafat altered the municipal borders of Bethlehem in order to incorporate 30,000 Muslims from nearby refugee camps that included Dehaisheh, El-Ayda and El-Azeh as well as members of the Ta’amarah Bedouin tribe. [2] Arafat also encouraged Muslims from Hebron to relocate to Bethlehem to alter the religious status quo and alter the Christian character of the city

Concerns over the status of Bethlehem’s Christian community have increased following recent municipal elections in which Islamic fundamentalist groups gained strength. [3] Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have been listed as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. since 1997.

The European Union, Australia and Canada also have listed them as foreign terrorist organizations. In May, these terrorist organizations were elected to Bethlehem’s municipal council for the first time in history. The two groups combined gained seven out of 15 seats-nearly a majority. Christians representing both PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) earned the remaining eight but are terrorized by extremists groups that claim that Christian representation in government is due to an electoral quota.

The PA has also appropriated land from the Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem through violent means. Additionally, thugs from the Ta’amarah tribe harass and extort Christian businessmen. [4] Under the new order, Christians are denied the legal and police protection afforded to Muslims under PA law, [5] which has resulted in ongoing harassment and assault against the non-Muslim community. More than 30% of Bethlehem’s population is now affiliated with Hamas. [6] As a result many Christians have fled Bethlehem. Some have abandoned family roots of hundreds of years in the city and moved abroad. Between Oct. 2000 and Nov. 2001, nearly 3,000 Christians emigrated from the West Bank; of those, 1,640 are left in Bethlehem. [7]

About 150,000 Palestinians are now residents of the greater Bethlehem municipality which includes Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jallah and other small villages. Only 25,000 of the 150,000 are Palestinian Christians – less than 20 percent of the total population.

The Church of the Nativity Siege

On April 2, 2002, armed Palestinian terrorists took over Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity to evade arrest by Israeli forces. They used the church as a military post and took seven clergymen hostage, safe in the knowledge that the Israeli army would never desecrate the church by pursuing them inside. Thirteen militants, affiliates of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Fatah Tanzim, holed up inside for 39 days. By the end of the standoff, the militants had desecrated and littered the church with garbage.

In May 2002 U.S. Reps. J. D. Hayworth (R-AZ) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) co-authored a letter to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and signed by 52 House members that requested the extradition of two wanted terrorists who were responsible for the death of an American citizen. Ibrahim Moussa Salem Abayat (Fatah Tanzim) and Jihad Youssef Khalil Jaara (Fatah Tanzim and Hamas) were both residents of Bethlehem and involved in the May 2002 standoff in the Church of the Nativity they were later included among the 13 Palestinian terrorists that were exiled to different EU countries. The House representatives are seeking to prosecute Abayat and Jaara for the Jan. 15, 2001 murder of 72-year-old American citizen Avi Boaz. Abayat is rumored to be living in Spain, but Jaara’s whereabouts are still unknown.

Recent Terror Attacks from Bethlehem

  • On April 1, 2004, the IDF raided the Daheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem to arrest a number of terrorists, including Palestinian Security personnel, who were planning to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians. Twelve terrorists, most of them from Fatah Tanzim, had hidden in a psychiatric hospital, which is a violation of international law.
  • On Feb. 22, 2004, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades dispatched Muhammed Za’ul from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. He detonated himself on Egged bus #14A in Jerusalem, killing eight and wounding more than 60; 11 of them were high school students.
  • On March 29, 2003, Iat Alacharas, 23, from Dahaisha refugee camp near Bethlehem killed 2 civilians and injured 22 when she detonated her explosives belt at a supermarket in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood. Fatah Tanzim claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • On March 12, 2004, Andaliv Takataka, a member of Fatah Tanzim, blew herself up at the entrance of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market in proximity to an Egged bus. She killed four Israeli civilians, two foreign workers from China and injured more than 60. She entered Jerusalem through Abu Dis, an East Jerusalem neighborhood.
  • The Oct. 16, 2005 terrorist attack which killed two cousins, Matat Rosenfeld Adler and Kineret Mandel, as well as 14-year-old Oz Ben Meir was perpetrated by men who fled to the Bethlehem village of El-Aroub.

    Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades

  • Association: Fatah, Fatah Tanzim
  • Headquarters: Nablus and Ramallah
  • Doctrines: Armed Struggle, Terrorism Legitimate Means to “Liberate Palestine”
  • Background: Secular/Nationalists
  • Approach: Suicide Bombings, Shootings, Rocket & Mortar Attacks

    The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades was formed in 2000, at the onset of the Al-Aqsa Intifada by a collection of radical Palestinians from the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. The Brigades are referred to as the armed wing of Fatah, former PA Chairman Yasser Arafat’s secular political movement now led by Mahmoud Abbas. Fatah Tanzim, another paramilitary faction of Fatah, sponsors and administers this group. Most of the Brigades’ members receive salaries from the Palestinian Authority because they work for both the PA Security Services (PSS) and the terrorist organization. [8] The Brigades employ jihadist tactics resembling those of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, sending suicide bombers into Israel to strike at civilians, but they gain motivation from the Shiite Lebanese-backed militia Hizbullah. [9]

    To date, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades have perpetrated more terrorist attacks against Israelis than Hamas or Islamic Jihad. [10] In January 2002, the Brigades were the first Palestinian terrorist organization to dispatch a female suicide bomber into Israel; [11] many others have originated from this group. After a wave of suicide bombings against Israelis, the Brigades were listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization in 2002 and have been responsible for hundreds of attacks that have resulted in the deaths of 51 Israelis, injuries to 439 civilians and 8 foreign nationals. The Brigades are also responsible for the deaths of several U.S. citizens.

    [1] Weiner, Justus R., “Human rights of Christians in Palestinian Society,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2005, http://www.jcpa.org/christian-persecution.htm

    [2] Raab, David, “The beleaguered Christians of the Palestinian-controlled areas,” The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, No. 490, Jan. 2003, http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp490.htm

    [3] Stahl, Julie, “Bethlehem Christians worry about Islamic takeover in Jesus’ birthplace,” Cybercast News Service (CNSNews.com), May 19, 2005, http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewCulture.asp?Page=%5CCulture%5Carchive%5C200505%5CCUL20050519b.html

    [4] Farah, Joseph, “Christian persecution in Arafat-land,” World Net Daily, July 22, 2002, http://www.worldnetdaily.com/new/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=28357

    [5] Ibid

    [6] Ibid

    [7] Stahl, Julie, “Bethlehem Christians worry about Islamic takeover in Jesus’ birthplace,” Cybercast News Service (CNSNews.com), May 19, 2005, http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewCulture.asp?Page=%5CCulture%5Carchive%5C200505%5CCUL20050519b.html

    [8] “Martyrs of al-Aqsa,” The Institute for Counter-Terrorism, http://www.ict.org.il/organizations.orgdet.cfm?orgid=83

    [9] “Terrorism Q & A: Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade,” Council on Foreign Relations, http://cfrterrorism.org/groups/alaqsa.html

    [10] “Martyrs of al-Aqsa,” The Institute for Counter-Terrorism, http://www.ict.org.il/organizations.orgdet.cfm?orgid=83

    [11] “Terrorist Group Profiles: Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade,” Naval Postgraduate School, May 10, 2005, http://library.nps.navy.mil/home/tgp/aqsa.htm

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