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Friday, 2 August, 2002, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Nativity church exiles speak out
Palestinian militants arrive in Larnaca, Cyprus
Thirteen men were exiled after the Nativity siege

Their handshakes were rock hard.

Blessed with good looks, broad smiles, and the confidence of youth, they exuded friendliness and charm.


They have not only been involved in terrorist activities, at least one of them is a member, an active member, of Hamas

Mark Sofer, Israeli Foreign Ministry
Dressed smartly, but casually, in jeans and crisp long sleeved shirts, they entered the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Athens' plush Paleo Psychiko district carrying satchels.

They had supposedly come from a Greek class at a language school which is anxious that fellow students should not learn the true identity of the two young Middle Eastern men in their midst.

Mohammed Muhaneh, 22-years-old, and Mamdoukh al-Wardian, 21-years-old, have gone back to school in an attempt to make the most of life in Greece - the land which is now their home.

Wanted men

But as far as the Israelis are concerned both men remain at the top of their most wanted list.

They came to prominence during the five-week long siege at the Church of the Nativity in their home town of Bethlehem.


I was a student. I'm not a terrorist. I was released from prison only five months before the siege... If I was a terrorist they would not have let me out of prison

Mamdoukh al-Wardian
They were among 13 Palestinian gunmen who the Israelis insisted be exiled from the Occupied Territories as part of the deal to end the siege.

Greece, a nation with a long history of Palestinian sympathy, agreed to take Mr Muhaneh and Mr Wardian for a year, and the other 11 went to other EU countries.

The agreement angered many Palestinians who accused Yasser Arafat of selling out.

And now the Palestinians say they will never succumb to exile again.

"We will resist it," says Mr Abdullah, the head of the Palestinian mission in Athens.

'One off-deal'

Mr Abdullah said the Palestinian Authority only agreed to the deal in order to lift the blockade on the 125,000 Palestinians living in Bethlehem, and also to remove the threat to the church, one of the holiest sites in Christendom.

"It was a one-off deal which will never be repeated," said Mr Abdullah.

Mohammed Muhaneh
Mr Muhaneh: "We are against killing civilians - Palestinian and Israeli"
The alleged militants see their exile as a sacrifice they agreed to for the sake of their people.

"All our people have a right to be upset about us being exiled. This is rejected by everyone. But it is not a choice by the Palestinian Authority," Mr Muhaneh said.

"It was a personal solution to the standoff. We sacrificed many things for the sake of our people in Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity".

But the Israelis insist they were justified in expelling Mr Wardian and Mr Muhaneh.

Israeli accusations

Israel has levelled a number of accusations against both men, which are generalised and do not specify the details of the crimes they are alleged to have committed.

The Israelis accuse Mr Wardian of being a senior Hamas operative, of carrying out shooting attacks and planting explosives.

The allegations against Mr Muhaneh are that he was a member of the Tanzim - a militia linked to the Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He is also alleged to have been involved in shooting and mortar attacks and to have recruited and trained terrorists.

Mr Wardian claims he has never fired a gun in anger.

"We know who we are," he said.

"I was a student. I'm not a terrorist. I was released from prison only five months before the siege. I was there two and a half years without charge. If I was a terrorist they would not have let me out of prison."

Militant link denied

Mr Wardian was pressed over his attitude to suicide bombings, a tactic frequently used by Hamas.

"I am not a member of Hamas. A man loses his children. A woman's son is buried in rubble. In the Jenin massacre houses were destroyed and 500 killed. There must be a reaction.

"It is a natural reaction and legitimate right. They stand up for brothers and fathers killed. They go out and do whatever they have to," Mr Wardian said.

Mamdoukh al-Wardian
Mr Wardian denies being a member of Hamas
But Mr Muhaneh's attitude reflected the views of more moderate Palestinians.

"My view is that we are against killing civilians - Palestinian and Israeli," he said.

"However, for every action there is a reaction."

Mr Muhaneh also rejected the Israeli charges against him.

"I was a policeman for the Palestinian Authority not a member of a militant group. A legitimate policeman for the Palestinian Authority.

"I protected territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority. I haven't been involved in military operations against Israel," Mr Muhaneh said.

Mark Sofer, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, has a different view.

"The distance between these people and innocence is like the distance between night and day.

"They have not only been involved in terrorist activities, at least one of them is a member, an active member, of Hamas," Mr Sofer said.

Returning to Bethlehem

Mr Muhaneh and Mr Wardian are under the impression that they may be able to return to Bethlehem within a year.

But Israel says they are mistaken.

The level of conflict is such that for the time being their exile is open-ended.

It will probably take a peace settlement for them to be allowed to go back home.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Malcom Brabant
"It will probably take a peace settlement for them to be allowed to go back home"

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