Eyewitness report from peace campaigners at Church of Nativity

 Written by Dennis B. Warner of Falls Church, Virginia, representing Pax Christi USA in support of ISM Around 6pm yesterday, a group of international peace activists of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) successfully evaded Israeli military patrols and entered the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This was the second time in four days that the ISM attempted to breach the Israeli military siege of the church, to bring sorely-needed food supplies to those taking refuge in this holiest of Christian shrines. On Monday, 29 April, members of the ISM reached the door of the church before they were forcefully pulled away before they could enter. Yesterday they not only reached the interior of the church with supplies of rice, flour, salt and sweets but left ten of their party in the church to share the confinement with the resident monks who oversee the operations of the church and a large number of Palestinians who had fled to the church for protection during the Israeli invasion a month ago. A journalist for the Los Angeles Times also joined with the group and remained in the church with the ISM members. On this second penetration of the military cordon around the church, a primary purpose was to put international peace activists in the structure to underscore to the international community the severity of the conditions there and the illegality of the Israeli military occupation of the city of Bethlehem. The ten ISM activists included five Americans, one Briton, one Dane, one Swede, one Irish and one Canadian. Three of these are women. The entry to the church began when three ISM groups totalling 23 activists approached the structure from three directions. Crossing Manger Square at a steady but rapid walk, they reached the door of the church which was briefly opened at their arrival. The Israeli troops stationed around the church and Manger Square appeared to be taken by surprise and were unable to intercept the activists before they had successfully crossed the square. Fortunately, no shots were fired and no tear gas or stun grenades were used by the Israeli troops. Thirteen ISM members remained outside the church where they were immediately detained and arrested by the military. This group included five Americans, three Britons and two Swedes. Again, three members of the detained group were women. A number of mobile telephone calls by the detained activists indicated that they were not mistreated but being held by Israeli authorities for questioning. As of this report, no word has been given of the fate of the detainees. ISM organizers believe that the detainees may face deportation from Israel. The ten ISM activists intend to remain in the church until the military siege is lifted. Before beginning this action, ISM organizer, Ms Huwaida Arraf, one of the current detainees, expressed the hope that the presence of international observers in the church will help deter the Israeli military from firing into the structure. Over the past several weeks, several Israeli assaults against the church have been attempted. The most recent attack occurred last night and resulted in two fires in the church and, according of the Mayor of Bethlehem, one Palestinian killed and two wounded. Following the breach of the military cordon, a group of ISM members who had remained at the barricades compiled lists of activists in the church and in Israeli military custody. Names and passport numbers were reported to the consulates and embassies of the countries from which the activists came. In addition, information was given to the score or more of international press corps present at the scene. This action occurred on the same day that the military siege of the Presidential Compound at Ramallah was lifted. The International Solidarity Movement is a Palestinian-based organization dedicated to non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation. Founded two years ago, it encourages international peace activists to come to Palestine to provide non-violent support to the Palestinian resistance.

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