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Gunmen in Bethlehem church offered trial or permanent exile

The Guardian – 15 April 2002
 
The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, yesterday offered scores of Palestinian gunmen trapped in an armed standoff in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity the choice of surrendering and being tried in an Israeli military court, or going into exile “forever”.
As negotiations continued behind the scenes between the gunmen in the church and Israeli military negotiators, Ra’anan Gissin, Mr Sharon’s spokesman, said Israel had given the proposal to the US secretary of state, Colin Powell.
The Palestinian governor of Bethlehem, Mohammed al-Madani, who is among about 100 Palestinians, including gunmen, inside the church, rejected the Israeli proposal.
But he said the Palestinians in the church, surrounded by Israeli tanks and troops for nearly two weeks, would abide by any solution endorsed by the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
“We totally reject these proposals,” Mr Madani told Reuters, before adding: “Any solution concerning the besieged is up to President Arafat and the besieged will abide by his decision.”
Despite efforts at mediation by the Christian churches to end the standoff, senior Israeli military officers directing the siege insisted that it was a matter that would be resolved by the Israeli military.
“The terrorists will have two choices: either they will stand trial in Israel and serve a sentence here [if] found guilty … [or] they will be expelled from Israel forever and from the territories,” Mr Gissin said yesterday. There was no official Palestinian comment on the proposal.
Those trapped inside the church, with little food, water or communication with the outside world, are also living with the bodies of at least two Palestinian policeman.
The first of hundreds of Palestinians who have already been arrested in the West Bank were being transferred to Ketziot detention camp in the Negev desert, which the Israeli army reopened at the weekend.
Ketziot was closed seven years ago after the last prisoners from the first intifada were freed. It can hold up to 7,000 inmates in a series of huge compounds of tents.
Last week Mr Sharon secretly asked the army to rush the camp back into service. Hundreds of reservists will be needed to staff it.
The Israeli army has said that it has arrested more than 4,000 men and yesterday was continuing its house-to-house searches in West Bank villages. Many detainees are currently being held in temporary interrogation centres, such as Ofer camp near Ramallah.
Hassib Nashishibi, of the Palestinian legal rights group Law, said the prison’s resurrection was a death blow to the Oslo peace process. “We are back to the mass arrests policy of the first intifada – it’s a reoccupation by other means.”

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