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Friday, 14 June, 2002, 21:13 GMT 22:13 UK
Exiled Palestinians recall Bethlehem siege
Some of the 26 Palestinian gunmen released from the Church of the Nativity gesture as they walk across the Erez checkpoint into Gaza on 10 May
The Palestinians said they agreed to be sent into exile
Two Palestinian men who were sent into exile when the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem ended last month have spoken about their experiences for the first time.

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Jihad Jaara and Rami Kamel denied Israeli accusations that they had been involved in attacks in which Israelis died.


I didn't go to the church in order to look for sympathy - I went... because I was hit badly and looking for a place where I could get some treatment

Jihad Jaara
Both men said they would not condone any attacks on civilians, either Israelis or Palestinians.

The men have been granted temporary residential status in Ireland and are currently living under police protection in a safe house.

Mr Jaara recalled how he fled to the church as Israeli forces entered Bethlehem during its military operation in the West Bank to root out Palestinian militants.

"I was hit and was trying to find place to go and nurse my wounds and the only place was the church so I went there," he said.

"I didn't go to the church in order to look for sympathy - I went... because I was hit badly and looking for a place where I could get some treatment.

"My injuries were very bad. I smashed the bones of my entire leg and I stayed 39 days in the church without any treatment whatsoever."

'Desperate'

Mr Kamel said that choosing the church was not a deliberate tactic.

"There were no facilities such as food or sleeping arrangements. The situation was desperate therefore we were suffering," he said.

"I know that people will not believe us if we say the situation we endured inside was desperate."

A flare is fired over Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during the siege
Israeli troops kept a tight grip on the Bethlehem church
He said that for about 10-15 days of the 38-day siege the priests were "very generous" and shared their food. But after that, food became scarce and the situation grew worse.

Mr Jaara said that he had expected the Israelis to withdraw sooner from Bethlehem, but he had been prepared to die for the Palestinian cause if necessary.

"All of the Palestinian people will die for the cause and we are happy for that," he said.

Mr Kamel said that as the siege neared its end, they received conflicting information about negotiations taking place outside.

He said: "We knew a few hours before the actual withdrawal that the problems had been resolved. We knew we were going into exile.

"We were contacted by our Chairman (Yasser) Arafat and he asked us if we agreed to be exiled.

"We agreed in order to lift the siege, not on ourselves but for our families and our whole community. Arafat contacted us through the Palestinian negotiators."

Israeli accusations

Israel insists that the 13 men sent into exile were dangerous militants, and alleges that Mr Jaara had connections with military groups including Hamas.


I was an officer in the Palestinian Authority and I defended my country through the Palestinian Authority

Jihad Jaara
He said: "The Israelis have been telling lies to the world for the past 50 years and it's quite easy for them to tell lies about me."

Asked if he was a member of any military organisation or if he had sympathies with the group Hamas, he said: "I am an officer in the Palestinian Authority.

"I am a Palestinian and I sympathise with the Palestinian people - all of them."

Mr Jaara denied Israeli claims that he had been involved in shooting attacks in the Jericho area and the killing of an Israeli army officer in November 2000.

"I was an officer in the Palestinian Authority and I defended my country through the Palestinian Authority. I have not been involved in any act of terror," he said.

Asked if he had been involved in organising suicide attacks - in particular one at an army checkpoint on 26 March - he replied: "This is not true.

"The Israelis claim things that haven't happened and I deny categorically what they are saying."


After they (Israeli soldiers) come to our houses and our villages we have to defend ourselves

Rami Kamel
When pressed to give an opinion about suicide bombings, Mr Jaara said: "I am against the killing of civilians whether Palestinian or Israelis.

"I am for freedom for the children of the world for the children and people of every race."

But he would not condemn such attacks, saying: "I reserve the right to answer.

"I cannot speak for the Palestinian people, only for myself."

Mr Kamel is described by the Israelis as "one of the most extreme operatives" in the militant Palestinian group Tanzim.

He said: "These are false claims, this is not true."

He said he did not agree with the killing of civilians but condoned the killing of Israeli soldiers if they made incursions into Palestinian areas.

He said: "After they come to our houses and our villages we have to defend ourselves."


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23 May 02 | Middle East
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