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Israelis blame Arafat for Bethlehem church fire

An explosion lights up the area Thursday near Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
An explosion lights up the area Thursday near Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.  

From Walter Rodgers

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNN) -- The Israeli military Thursday accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of orchestrating a fire and a gun battle at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity in an attempt to cast Israel as the villain in a standoff at the holy site.

Israeli Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz also said that Palestinians have planted bombs and booby traps at the church, the site believed to be the place where Jesus was born. Palestinians rejected the allegations and said Israel was to blame for violence that erupted at the church overnight.

Later Thursday, a group of activists said they managed to get at least 10 people past Israeli troops and into the church. Two photographers were also able to get inside, they said.

Israeli troops detained 15 other members of the International Solidarity movement, but a group spokesman said those who got inside were carrying food and were prepared to stay as long as the standoff continues.

Gunfire broke out at the church shortly after an Israeli siege of his compound was lifted in Ramallah, prompting Arafat to say he was concerned not about himself but about the church standoff.

"What is important now is this big crime which has happened against this holy sacred place for the Muslims and for the Christians, the Nativity church," Arafat said. "You have followed what they have done -- two big places have been burned, in the Franciscan area and in the Orthodox room. ... They succeed inside to control the fire, to put out the fire."

But Rafowicz showed reporters photos of glass exploding outward from windows in the Franciscan Monastery and the Orthodox Tower, both adjacent to the church.

If Israel had set the fire, Rafowicz said, the glass would have been blown inward, not outward.

Rafowicz said those inside the church are taking their orders from Arafat. "It just shows that he is in total control of this crisis, and we know he is using this crisis as a political tool to achieve political goals," he said.

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The Israelis suggested that the fire was timed to coincide with the Israeli withdrawal from around Arafat's Ramallah compound so that the Palestinian leader could blame Israel for the continuing standoff at the church.

"One of the factors here is what role Yasser Arafat will play," said Daniel Taub, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "From some of the statements that he has been making immediately, he doesn't seem to be trying to move the Bethlehem situation to a smooth and quiet resolution.

"Unfortunately he seems to be trying to use it as another excuse to inflame international passions, and I think that Yasser Arafat could be playing a more constructive role in trying to bring this impasse to an end."

Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator, rejected Israeli accusations that Palestinians had set the fire and had booby-trapped the church.

"I must say that this could be preparing for something big, storming the church, destroying the church and then blaming it on Palestinians," Erakat said.

U.S. and European officials have been involved in arranging talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, but no negotiations were taking place Thursday.

Israel said up to 200 Palestinians remain in the church, as many as 40 of them "senior terrorists" wanted by the Jewish state. The standoff began a month ago when the Palestinians went into the church as Israeli tanks and troops rolled into Bethlehem.

Activists rush to enter the Church of the Nativity on Thursday after slipping past Israeli troops.
Activists rush to enter the Church of the Nativity on Thursday after slipping past Israeli troops.  

Israeli officials have said Palestinians inside the church who are not wanted on terrorism charges can leave at any time. They have offered to try the alleged terrorists in Israeli courts or allow them to accept exile in a third country. So far, the Palestinians have rejected that proposal.

Gunfire could be heard around the church Thursday. Palestinians said one man was killed and three others wounded. Israel Radio reported that soldiers fired at five armed men in the courtyard of the church, hitting four of them, after Palestinian gunmen had opened fire on an Israel Defense Forces post near the church.

The Israelis said they are delivering 50 to 100 meals a day for priests and nuns who remain inside the church. However, they accused the Palestinians of taking the food.




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