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Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 21:45 GMT 22:45 UK
Bethlehem siege: Inside the negotiations
An Israeli soldier starts clearing food set out for those expected to leave the church after the talks stalled
Food had been set out for those who were expected to leave the church on Wednesday night
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By Tamar Shiloh
BBC News Online

The Archbishop of Canterbury's representative in Bethlehem, Canon Andrew White, has been present for every twist and turn of the painful negotiations to bring an end to the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

We have been trying... to see what we can do to alleviate the very considerable humanitarian needs of those living around the church

Canon Andrew White
His main role since the siege began on 2 April, has been to help bring the sides together to end the crisis.

Canon White says that there is a plan on which all sides agree, but its implementation is complicated.

More than 100 people - including Palestinian gunmen and civilians as well as nuns and priests - have been holed up inside the church for more than five weeks. Israel wants to deport 13 militants who are among them.

"We have been trying to work with the local people at finding a solution to this awful problem, and also trying to see what we can do to alleviate the very considerable humanitarian needs of those living around the church," Canon White told BBC News Online.

He said it was very difficult to say whether a solution was near, particularly after Wednesday night, "when we came literally two or three minutes from implementing the whole plan. And then everything kind of fell to pieces at the last moment".

"The reality is that there is a plan on the table. Each side knows where they want to go, there is consensus, and that must give us hope that there is a plan that could be implemented any time," he said.

Conditions hard

Canon White is a member of the permanent committee for the Alexander Declaration, signed by the leaders of all three religions in Israel and Palestine, Jews, Christians and Muslims, including members of both governments - the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government - promising to work together for peace.

The atmosphere has been very tense since the beginning of this awful saga

Canon Andrew White
"We have been working very much behind the scenes with the various people involved in the negotiations," Canon White said.

He said conditions in Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour were tough, since the three towns were still under curfew most of the time.

"The curfew is lifted for three or four hours every two or three days. That's when people go and shop," he said.

"But those living nearest to the church are unable to leave even if the curfew is lifted."

He said bringing food to those people was extremely difficult.

"Some aid organisations have taken food in. We've taken food in to some of the most needy, particularly those who are ill, and we've taken in medicines as well, but there is quite a humanitarian crisis in the area," he said.

'Roller coaster'

"The atmosphere has been very tense since the beginning of this awful saga," Canon White said.

He said the talks have been "a real roller coaster experience. There have been highs and lows."

A Palestinian woman in Bethlehem
It is hard to get food to those living near the church
He emphasised that the problem had no simple solution.

"It is multi-faceted. There are obviously other nations involved, particularly those who may be willing to offer refuge to those who need to be sent abroad," he said.

Inside the church there is no electricity, he said, but there is a well, which water is taken from.

"Food is provided for the members of the religious communities who have to be there," he said, but food is provided to the other people in the church "only on rare occasions".

Canon Andrew White in Bethlehem
"There is a plan which could be implemented at any time"
See also:

09 May 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Siege unbroken
09 May 02 | Middle East
Timeline: Bethlehem siege
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