It was just a few days after Easter of 2002 and about five months after the break out of the second intifada. Israel was moving into the west bank after a series of horrible homicide bombings causing dozens of deaths leading up to and during Passover.
Over a hundred Palestinians took "refuge" in one of the Holiest sites in Christianity Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord--the birthplace of Jesus.
The Franciscan pastor of the Basilica of the Nativity explains what happened last spring Amjad Sabarra, O.F.M., picks up the story:
"I [Amjad Sabarra] am a Palestinian from Jerusalem's Old City and a member of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Ordained to the priesthood in June 1992, I serve as the Roman Catholic pastor of the world's oldest parish: Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord.This is just one of many incidents of the Palestinian leadership authorizing the trashing of holy sites both Christian and Jewish. It is sad that few protest this treatment of sacred space by people called "moderate."
Thirty other friars, four Catholic nuns, nine Greek Orthodox monks, five Armenian monks and I were caught by surprise last spring during the 39-day siege of the basilica and its adjoining buildings.
On the morning of April 2, 2002, 10 armed Palestinian men wandered into the basilica. Father Ibrahim Faltas, O.F.M., and I approached them and explained that we do not allow arms in the basilica and that they would have to leave. They did so quietly and politely. We then bolted the front door of the church
Around 3 p.m. we heard a lot of gunfire, and yelling in and near the basilica. We quickly entered the church to find several hundred Palestinians running into the nave of the basilica with several dozen men carrying guns and semi-automatics. Apparently, they had broken the front door of the church." (The Bethlehem Siege: An Insider's Account"St. Anthony's Messenger, August 2002)
What the Pastor (and the rest of us) didn't know was it was the beginning of a thirty day siege of that holy shrine and that Yassir Arafat and his cronies planned the siege as a PR stunt to make Israel look bad. And it worked Israel and the IDF took not just the brunt but the totality of blame for the incident which trashed the holy site while the Fatah perpetrators of the siege were "exiled" to holiday homes in Europe and elsewhere.
The world, including major world leaders and institutions such as the Vatican, largely condemned Israel for the siege, even though the IDF protested that it had been pre-planned by Fatah. The Palestinian terrorists who commandeered the church ended up desecrating and in some cases wholly destroying one of Christianity's most holy sites. Most, if not all, of the Christian icons, relics and other religious items of value were pillaged.
Eiman Abu Eita, the then-representative for Fatah in Bethlehem, has admitted to Aaron Klein that the entire incident was pre-planned in order to give the mainstream media the impression that Israel was to blame. "The conspiracy was to make a siege and put all the fighters inside the church so Israel would make the siege. People from the Palestinian Authority collaborated with this conspiracy"