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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
No winners from siege deal
Militants emerge form church
Some of those released face exile
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By Paul Reynolds
BBC Middle East analyst
The siege of the Church of the Nativity was not a total victory for either side.

The Palestinian fighters managed to escape capture by using the sanctuary of the church and its associated complex which they knew the Israelis would not violate. But they have been removed from a battlefield on which they want to play their role.

The Israelis managed to achieve their aim of having the most wanted suspects sent abroad. But they have not got these men in their own custody and cannot be confident that in due course they will not return.

The incident, however, will probably be forgotten quickly in the rapid pace of events.

The Israelis will move out, the families of those sent away will grieve at the prospect of exile and the priests - Franciscan, Greek Orthodox and Armenian - will resume their daily routines amid the rivalries which often make the church the scene of unseemly religious conflict.

Limited influence

The Europeans, at least, will be pleased that they played a role in bringing the siege to an end - providing a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians which they hope will be used in future crises and perhaps one day in peace talks.

Europe has limited influence in the Middle East but it does have a role and can be quite useful when it does so.

Church siege deal

  • 13 militants to be exiled in Europe
  • 26 gunmen face trial in Gaza
  • 85 civilians and police will be released
  • 10 activists to be deported

      Click here for Bethlehem siege timeline

  • Had it not been for the suicide bomb attack in the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion, the end of the siege might have provided a breathing space.

    For the first time for several weeks, major Palestinian urban centres are free of major Israeli army units. In such a space, the beginnings of contact and calm might have emerged.

    But the reality is that conflict is continuing and peace talks are far away. Indeed, to those who know only conflict, talk of peace often sounds hollow and cynical.

    So eyes are turned on Gaza, which was left alone by the Israeli army during Operation Defensive Shield.

    Gaza has been less of a problem for the Israelis because it is largely surrounded by a fence and suicide bombers find it harder to get out than they have done from places like Jenin in the West Bank.

    But Gaza is also home to Hamas, the Islamic extremist group which attacks the very concept of an Israeli state.

    Hamas 'target'

    So the expectation is that Israel will mount some sort of assault in Gaza. The Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has said that it will be "careful and measured".

    "We don't have any intention to reconquer Gaza, but to reach points where there are real centres of terror," he said.

    The most likely target is Hamas itself. Its leaders have been living there quite openly, regularly giving interviews to the foreign media. Maybe Israel will want to show them that they are not immune.

    Relatives of Ibrahim Abayat, one of those being deported to Cyprus
    Relatives wept as the 13 were led away into exile
    Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority seem to be trying to pre-empt any attack by rounding up Hamas activists. But it is too early to say if this is a tactical move or whether it represents a strategic move by Mr Arafat to exert control over the Islamic groups.

    The Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is unlikely to be impressed.

    Ariel Sharon knows Gaza well and is well known there. After the Israelis captured it in the war of 1967, Mr Sharon was put in charge and he used Jenin-type tactics to beat the Palestinian fighters.


    His instinct will be to try the same again.

    But there are other considerations. The end of the Bethlehem siege puts Israel in a better position internationally.

    Heavy fighting in the crowded Gaza Strip, where most Palestinians are refugees or their descendants and therefore have nothing much to lose by resistance, might put Israel back into the dock.

    That does not matter to most Israelis who believe they have to take whatever measures are necessary to protect themselves. But it does matter to some who are arguing for some restraint.

    Sadly, the end of the siege of Bethlehem might simply mean that the focus of the conflict moves somewhere else.

    See also:

    10 May 02 | Middle East
    In pictures: End of Bethlehem siege
    09 May 02 | Middle East
    Timeline: Bethlehem siege
    09 May 02 | Middle East
    Bethlehem siege: Inside the negotiations
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