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A siege on the truth at NYU

A show about the 2002 standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is a perversion of history
An Israeli soldier helps to smuggle out a priest and nun from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Sunday April 7, 2002. Israeli soldiers have been outside the church for a week long standoff with Palestinian gunmen. Photo by Flash90.
An Israeli soldier helps to smuggle out a priest and nun from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Sunday April 7, 2002. Israeli soldiers have been outside the church for a week long standoff with Palestinian gunmen. Photo by Flash90.

I was dismayed to learn that starting this Thursday, New York University is hosting The Siege, a performance describing events at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, as told from the perspective of Palestinian terrorists.

The backdrop for the story depicted in The Siege dates back to March 28, 2002, when Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield after a terror attack in which a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up in a dining room full of families sitting at a Passover seder in the Park Hotel in Netanya. The Second Intifada had been underway for a year and a half, and Yasser Arafat and his security chiefs had done nothing to prevent terrorists from coming from their territory. They chose, at best, to ignore reality, and at worst, to actually take part in terrorist attacks or helping the terrorists.

ֿThe show seeks to rewrite history. Instead of depicting Palestinian terrorists who took the Church of the Nativity hostage, it fabricates a tale of innocent civilians who sought sanctuary in the church. It is akin to presenting the September 11 attacks as a case of innocent civilians with mental problems who merely tried to force the pilots to land at the nearest airport, when instead the pilots smashed the planes into the World Trade Center.

I served as head of the Israel Security Agency when terrorists took over the Church of the Nativity, and here is the real story, exactly as it happened.

On April 2, 2002, at the height of the intifada, the very beginning of Operation Defensive Shield, IDF forces entered Bethlehem to rout out terrorists operating in Judea and Samaria. Hundreds of terrorists — snipers who shot into homes in the Gilo neighborhood, suicide bombers in Jerusalem and those who fired mortar shells at the Israeli capital — fled in all directions. Many were arrested, some were killed while attempting to resist our forces. But about 100 terrorists fled to the compound of the Church of the Nativity in downtown Bethlehem and barricaded themselves in, while taking dozens of church workers, priests and monks hostage.

Yes, terrorists actually took over one of the holiest places on earth, one of the three holiest sites in the Middle East and the holiest site to Christianity, located in territory that was under Palestinian Authority control. The IDF’s Chief of Staff and I consulted on how to resolve the matter with minimal casualties, among soldiers and hostages alike, and without causing serious damage to the church itself.

More than 100 Palestinian terrorists armed with automatic weapons, explosives and suicide belts were like a giant bull in a china shop, milling around inside a church filled with holy artifacts and religious objects, spectacular but fragile.

During the takeover, Catholic, Franciscan and Armenian priests and monks were inside the Church. For nearly six weeks, the IDF and the Israeli SWAT forces refrained from capturing the site in order to avoid killing innocents and causing damage.

Fire exchange with terrorists shooting at our soldiers around the church managed to preoccupy the terrorists as IDF soldiers managed on a daily basis to extract innocent Palestinian civilians who had fled into the church on the first day, as well as those church personnel who were not staying there in order to safeguard the church. (The terrorists had taken food from the priests. and settled in their quarters, while desecrating — even defecating on — the sanctity of the site).

After five weeks under siege, the terrorists realized they had few bargaining chips left. They understood that Israel did not intend to give in to their demands to receive immunity in return for releasing the church. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went on a planned visit to the United States and was scheduled to meet President Bush in Washington. It was in both their interests that the meeting take place with the events of the church in Bethlehem behind them.

Attempts by US officials to mediate a deal were unsuccessful. Thirty-eight days had passed and 100 terrorists still held the church hostage.

On one of many late night phone calls from Washington with Prime Minister Sharon, Sharon instructed me to contact Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and attempt to reach an arrangement with him whatever the cost. I restated my position to Sharon that a certain number of terrorists should be released to their homes, while the rest should be deported to Gaza and abroad (Gaza, as far as we were concerned back then, was the same as abroad in terms of the difficulty of penetrating Israel from it in those days).

The prime minister confirmed I could stick to my position with Arafat and expressed confidence I would conclude the matter with him in the spirit of our conversation.

At approximately 2 am, contact was made with Arafat. We had met so many times before that we went directly to discussing how to resolve the crisis in the Church of Nativity as soon as possible. Since the church also had several dozen terrorists with blood on their hands staying inside, I made it clear to Arafat that all the terrorists involved with attacks on Israelis would be deported: 13 to countries that agreed to take them and another 26 deported to Gaza. The other 60 terrorists not involved in acts of terrorism resulting in casualties would be released to the Palestinian territories.

This launched a round of haggling that might just as easily have been between merchants:

Arafat: No, Avi, reduce the number of deported terrorists from 13 to six.

And I, knowing that nine was the number Arafat was willing to settle on, explained to him in Arabic, “These 13 should thank God that they are even still alive.” These are the numbers that I, as a professional, could live with, and if this was unacceptable to him, then he could try and settle it with President Bush

The next day, the Red Cross sent 13 terrorists to European countries and another 26 to Gaza. About 60 terrorists had been released to the territories, the church returned to its previous state and the Christian world breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone, from the President of the United States to the Pope understood very well who in the Middle East really protects the Holy sites.

A small anecdote from events on the ground:

When the Palestinian terrorists were evacuated from the church, we thought it was over. But it turned out that the story was just beginning. In the framework of the centuries-old status quo between Catholics, Franciscans and Armenians, there is great meaning for those who enter the church first (a situation we know very well from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City). A heated argument broke out between the priests — who would enter first, and the soldiers did not know what to do.

Suddenly, one of the IDF sappers realized that the terrorists had left behind explosive charges throughout the church intended for detonation if the IDF tried to storm the church. The commander who heard this asked the sapper to repeat the report in English. And suddenly every priest became courteous and polite, each turning to his fellow from a different Christian denomination and saying he was willing, as an exception, to give up the honor. “You are welcome to enter first. No problem…”ֿ

It turns out that bombs can also be an opportunity for friendship.

A hostile takeover of one of Christianity’s holiest places must not be recast as a struggle for survival and freedom, as described in the show’s program. New York University, one of the most important academic institutions in the world, must not serve as fertile ground for a despicable anti-Semitic performance that presents terrorists as freedom fighters.

These terrorists did not only want to harm Jews. They did not distinguish between Jews and Christians. They wanted to harm this holy place of Christianity, and had even planted explosives inside the church. It is inconceivable that such a respectable institution would allow such a distorted play to be presented.

The truth is also an option. I urge NYU to choose the truth and remove the show from its calendar. Presenting the show is a present to terrorism!

This is a show appropriate to the perverse policies of a university in Tehran or Beirut. Not in New York.

About the Author
Knesset Member Avi Dichter, Likud, is chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and has served as Director of the Shin Bet, Minister of Public Security, and Minister of Homefront Defense.