Inside the Church of the Nativity

An American activist who snuck past Israeli troops to deliver food says there's plenty of illness, very little food and absolutely no militants hiding inside.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Published May 3, 2002 10:59PM (EDT)

Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity has become the eye of the Middle East storm, with continued clashes between Israelis and Palestinians over the 200 people holed up there, even as Yasser Arafat made his way out of his newly liberated Ramallah compound and Israeli troops pull out of other West Bank cities. But amazingly on Thursday, 11 international pro-Palestinian activists managed to evade Israeli Defense Force roadblocks and gun-toting soldiers to enter the church and deliver food.

Late Thursday Salon spoke to Kristen Schurr, a member of the New York-based group Direct Action for Justice in Palestine, on one of her two cellphones just a few hours after she'd entered the church. Schurr, 33, described her group's repeated attempts to enter the church during the standoff. Activists who didn't make it in Thursday were arrested, she said.

As with everything else in the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians disagree over the situation inside the church. The Israelis say that in addition to Palestinian security personnel, church guards, civilians, peace activists and clergymen, there are gunmen and militants who are wanted by Israel in prior terror attacks. The militants, the Israelis claim, are holding at least some of the others hostage. The Palestinians deny that there are any hostages, and have proposed ending the siege by having the militants wanted by Israel brought to Jericho for trial. But Schurr, a dedicated pro-Palestinian activist, even denies there are any militants.

In a brief interview, Schurr blamed the standoff entirely on the Israelis. She's exhausted from her ordeal, but still working hard to get the word out. During the conversation, she had to stop more than once to answer her other phone. At one point, she could be heard describing the situation to another caller, "... they didn't even see us coming. I wish we could have brought more food. We brought what we could, but I wish we could have brought more. It's OK. It's not good, but people are surviving."

How were you able to get in? The church is under intense military security.

Yes, we climbed over a barricade and through some barbed wire, and we divided into three groups. We had the element of surprise on our side. We just had bags of food and we just headed for the door and didn't turn back when the soldiers were yelling at us to stop.

Were you shot at?

They shot after we got in. I've tried to get into the church with food and medical supplies for the past month at different points, and every time I've been shot at. Or they've shot warning shots. But this time I didn't hear any and it may be that I wasn't paying any attention, that I was just trying to get in, but I don't think that's true. I think they didn't because there's a great deal of media.

All around?

Yes, there are a bunch of media already inside of Manger Square right by a tank, so it had already gotten chaotic because they were there. What I have noticed is the last time I tried to get food into the church that the soldiers were very gentle with us, by comparison, because there was so much media there. When the corporate media is there with their cameras on, we get treated OK. I think it wouldn't have done well if they'd shot a bunch of internationals in the back while trying to get into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with bags of food.

What's the situation inside the church right now? What did you find when you arrived?

Well, 155 Palestinians had soup for lunch today made of leaves from a tree and water, and a pinch of salt. Several people are quite sick, ill, they haven't gotten out of bed since I got here.

What is wrong with them?

There are blanket beds against the wall ... I'm not positive on the specifics of what's wrong with the people that are in here. I know that somebody who was bleeding from being shot by an Israeli sniper was able to be taken out by one of the clergy members, was able to put them into an ambulance, into a car, and be taken to the hospital. And another who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper this morning was also taken out.

What is your plan? Are you planning to stay in the church?

Yeah, we're going to stay until the Israeli military lets the Palestinians out without killing them or arresting them.

The Israeli position is that they're willing to let everyone but the militants go free.

Well, I'm not sure who they mean are militants.

The Israelis are claiming that there are a number of Palestinian militants in the church, people guilty of terror attacks.

There are no Palestinians of that nature in here. There are some Palestinian police and also some people who worked as guards for the Church of the Nativity, but as far as who's doing the attacking, my position is absolutely that the Israelis attacked the Palestinians.

You're saying that there are no Palestinian militants in the church?

Yes, that is my position. Militants, no. There are Israeli military surrounding the church.

The people that are in the church now are all civilians, some police?

Some police, some guards.

There are certain people in the church who the Israelis say are hostages, who they will let go free. Is that your understanding? That the Israelis will let certain people, hostages, go free?

No, actually, I'm an international civilian and the Israelis shoot at me. So, I don't have the understanding that they're letting any Palestinians do anything that is free.

But as far as people in the church, as I understand it, there are certain people in the church that the Israelis say are being held hostage.

That's absolutely not true. I'm in here and clearly no one's being held hostage. As far as people that walk out, they're arrested or killed. The internationals who didn't make it in have been arrested.

How can this situation be resolved, in your view?

What we're hoping is that the international community will put pressure on the Israeli government to allow Palestinians to move freely throughout their lives, to stop occupying them, to stop requiring them to go through checkpoints in order to move from area to the next, and to allow them some freedom and dignity. And that they will move out of Bethlehem, that they will take their tanks out of here, get rid of their guns, get the Israeli soldiers out of Bethlehem and let these people live their lives. That's what we're hoping.

But didn't Israel have to take some action, in light of the numerous suicide bombings on Israeli civilians?

Palestinian civilians are killed every single day by the Israeli military. Daily in the Gaza strip, particularly in the south, tanks shell, snipers shoot at kids, Apaches fly overhead in the West Bank, Israeli tanks surround towns, and fully occupy towns. I'd say as far as the death toll is concerned, Palestinians have lost many, many of their people ... I've got another interview I've got to do now on the other phone.

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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