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Teens Relay Bethlehem Church Scene

April 26, 2002

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) _ During the first chilly nights Abed Abu Surour spent inside the Church of the Nativity, he huddled with 30 young men in the tiny stone grotto revered as the spot where Jesus was born.

And on his final full day at the church, the hungry 16-year-old Muslim slipped into a church garden to pick green beans, only to be chased off by Israeli army fire.

As Abu Surour and other youths recounted their three weeks inside the shrine, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators remained deadlocked on the fate of about 30 gunmen among more than 200 Palestinians still holed up inside.

After three days of negotiations at the Bethlehem Peace Center, a building next to the church, no discussions were held Friday as a Palestinian negotiator prepared to consult with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Abu Surour, a lively, talkative kid, was among nine youths to emerge from the church on Thursday. On April 2, the day the standoff began, he was heading to Bethlehem’s market to meet friends when Israeli troops began battling Palestinian gunmen, forcing him to seek cover.

He followed others through the 5-foot-high doorway into the church, one of the holiest sites in Christendom. The Palestinians, almost all of them Muslims, believed the church was the safest place from Israeli fire _ even more secure than the mosque at the other end of Manger Square.

Israel says it is only interested in the gunmen, and the others inside are free to come out at any time. And while some Palestinians have trickled out, most have stayed.

Most priests and monks, totaling about 40, have said they want to stay to protect the church. Several nuns _ the only women in the church _ have also remained. One is a nurse who has patched up Palestinians wounded by the Israelis.

Four Palestinian policemen emerged Friday. However, more than 100 policemen are still inside, along with about 50 civilians.

``It was a personal decision to leave the church. Those inside accepted that we were leaving,″ Abu Surour said. ``I felt the need to show solidarity, but I also felt I couldn’t stay any longer.″

After the nine youths emerged Thursday _ the largest single group to come out so far _ the Israelis interrogated them about the gunmen.

``We told them we don’t know all the people inside,″ said Mohammed Najar, 16. ``The situation is extremely difficult. There isn’t food, there isn’t medicine, and there isn’t enough water.″

Conditions were rough from the very first night.

As the group looked for a place to sleep in the cold, cavernous church, they opted for the warmest spot they could find _ the small cave believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth, located down a series of steps from the basilica.

Up to 30 people, most of them youths, gathered there the first few nights, later moving upstairs to the basilica, where they conducted Muslim prayers, Abu Surour said.

In the long days filled with boredom and punctuated with occasional bursts of gunfire, the darkest moments came when two Palestinian policemen were shot and killed.

In the first instance, a policeman had helped extinguish a fire in part of the compound that was caused by Israeli stun grenades and was shot in the head as he was crossing a yard to return to the basilica, Abu Surour said.

The second policeman to die was shot by an Israeli sniper after he ran an electrical cord into the adjacent Casanova Hotel, the teen-ager said.

The policeman staggered back to the basilica, shouting, ``I don’t want to die.″ But he collapsed minutes later.

The Palestinians built makeshift wooden coffins for the two bodies and placed them in St. Catherine’s Church in another part of the compound. The decaying corpses remained there for more than 10 days until Abu Surour and eight other youths carried them out Thursday.

The standoff has brought criticism of both sides. The gunmen have been denounced for charging into the holy site, firing their automatic weapons wildly at the pursuing Israeli troops as they entered.

Also, an Armenian monk who left the church accused those inside of looting. ``They opened the doors one by one and stole everything,″ including prayer books and crucifixes, said the monk, Narcis Kanrasian.

The Israelis have come under criticism for firing on the compound several times. The Israelis say they don’t intend to storm it, but Capt. Joel Leyden said Friday that Israel hasn’t ruled out ``the military option.″

As the standoff has dragged on, conditions have grown increasingly desperate. Abu Surour said that like most, he wore the same clothes throughout, and couldn’t wash, aside from splashing water on his face.

Food, which came from the monks’ cupboards, was rationed from the beginning. Palestinians and the priests have been eating only one meal a day _ rice or spaghetti. Surour said he would also eat onions and drink as much water as possible to keep hunger pangs at bay.

``You didn’t waste anything,″ said Abu Surour, a slim youth who said he lost 29 pounds. ``If you dropped a grain of rice, you picked it up.″

The youths were so hungry on Wednesday, the day before they came out, that they ventured into a church garden and began snapping up green beans. But they quickly came under Israeli fire, driving them back inside.

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