The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, April 18, 2002  

Will Israel really let them starve?

The dictionary in TRR‘s library defines the word desecration as: “To violate the sacredness of; profane” or “The act of desecrating; profanation; condition of anything desecrated.”

We looked up the word after reading an account of the siege of the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, now in its 16th day.

Michael Matza, who has been doing some outstanding reporting from the West Bank for the Philadelphia Inquirer, today writes, “Manger Square, once a magnet for pilgrims to the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ, has been off-limits to Palestinians, journalists and foreigners, who risk being shot on sight if they enter the area.”

Israeli authorities maintain the siege will end upon the surrender of 30 Palestinians inside the church who they accuse of killing Israeli soldiers and civilians. Neither side has budged since the siege began on April 3.

Conditions inside the church are deplorable.

According to Matza’s report, Jihad Abdul Rahman, a teenager who escaped from the church on April 15, said the 200 people inside the church complex “share four backed-up toilets, sleep fitfully four to a blanket and are lucky if they get one meal of plain rice a day.”

“In addition to the unsanitary conditions, severe cold at night and psychological pressure of being cooped up with Israeli loudspeakers blaring, there was the horror of living with several men who were badly wounded,” Rahman told Matza.

The intestines of one man inside the church were exposed, giving off a terrible odor. “He was hysterical, but nobody could get close to him because of the smell,” Abdul Rahman said.

Israeli officials did allow an ambulance to evacuate the man with the intestinal wound, and another with epilepsy, on April 16.

But at least one other severely injured man apparently remains inside. According to Rahman, the man’s leg was shattered by shrapnel, causing what appeared to be gangrene to form around the edges of his exposed bones.

And another man is dead. The Israelis have cut off the complex’s electrical supply, but those inside found one live outlet. A man in his twenties who went outside to find other possible sources of electricity was shot in the chest by a sniper. Pulled into the church, he failed to respond to attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation, “but 10 minutes later, with blood filling his mouth, the man died.”

If this is not the desecration of holy ground, we don’t know what is.

The Anti-Defamation League has publicly addressed the matter, expressing “profound disappointment with the Vatican for its failure to condemn the armed takeover of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem by wanted Palestinian terrorists.”

No mention, of course, of the more than 150 innocent civilians, including members of the clergy, who are being held hostage by the Israeli Defense Force.

One would think the Israelis, with their crack military capability and vigilant intelligence operation, would have the confidence to back away from this sacred space -- built in the fourth century -- and pursue the 30 wanted men by other means. Perhaps they could be sought through the IDF's favored method: conducting house-to-house searches from behind the controls of tanks and bulldozers.

Alas, no.

“As the church crisis grinds on, the Israelis appear to have the upper hand,” writes Matza. “They can wait out the situation, they say, and eventually starve the Palestinians out.”

Quite a photograph that will make -- the dead bodies of starved Palestinians, priests, and nuns being carried out of the Church of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. But with the IDF under orders to shoot journalists on sight, it would be a picture the world would likely not be allowed to see.

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