Exiled Palestinians speak of their ordeal at the Bethlehem church

A member of the Palestinian intelligence service and an alleged member of the militant group Hamas, both in their early 20s, are the two Palestinians whom Greece will be hosting for the next 12 months. The two met with reporters yesterday in Athens, in their first interview since they they were freed from the besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem under a deal over two weeks ago, and offered their side of the story. «My name is Mamdoukh Wardiyan, I am from Bethlehem and I am a computer science student,» said the 22-year-old exiled Palestinian while siting next to the Palestinian ambassador to Greece, Abdullah Abdullah. The Israelis accuse him of being a member of the militant group Hamas, something which he says he has been jailed for, though he has never formally been charged with any specific act of violence. «I spent two years in an Israeli prison without being formally charged, and the sentencing was renewed every six months,» he stated. «I exited the prison four months before the siege of Bethlehem.» He said that he does not know how Israel has named him as a member of Hamas, since during the first uprising (Intifada) he was too young to take part, and in the second he spent most of his time inside an Israeli prison. «I was arrested at the age of 17 while I was taking school exams, along with my brother and my cousin,» he stressed. «They told me I was a member of Hamas, but no charges were ever brought against me. I lost two years of my life.» The second Palestinian, Mohammed Muhaneh, 21, a member of the Palestinian intelligence service, said he is known to foreign delegates who have visited the territories because he was in their security detail during their visits. He declared that he had received training by the Central Intelligence Agency as a bodyguard for VIPs in the United States, a course he took back in 1998 for a period of 40 days. «I am an employee of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and as an employee I had the right to defend the city,» Muhaneh told reporters while explaining his role during the invasion of Bethlehem by Israeli forces. «We had information that the Israeli forces would attack the city,» Muhaneh said. «It was our duty to defend the city of Bethlehem.» Both Muhaneh and Wardiyan admitted that they were surprised to see the Israeli Defense Forces entering the center of the city, as well as its scale. «We were surprised by the scale of the attack,» Muhaneh stressed. «We counted about 250 armored personnel carriers and tanks, helicopter gunships, and as many as 10,000 troops.» He said that along with other security service employees he rushed to the old part of the city, where they believed they would be safe. «We were about 250 to 350 members of the security service, and each had a Kalashnikov, while some also had a pistol,» he said, explaining to reporters that their weapons were light and issued by their agency. «After an attack of six hours in that area we had to make a decision to change location. During those six hours a number of us, martyrs, had been killed and their bodies were lying on the ground.» Muhaneh was among the first to flee the scene and enter the grounds of the Church of the Nativity, which he said was open as usual. «When we reached the church we informed our brothers that it was safe there and told them to follow us,» he said. «They had no other choice as they were at the gate of the city, so they would either follow us or get killed.» Muhaneh declared that along with the rest of the security service agents who arrived at the church later were women and children. Wardiyan said that he was unarmed when he entered the church, as he had fled Ramallah after the Israelis invaded the city. «Those of us who were armed stayed in the yard outside the church,» Muhaneh told reporters, disputing Israeli accounts that the priests inside the church had been held hostage at gunpoint. «Father Ibrahim Fatash was collecting the weapons of those who were entering the church.» Siege of the church In a matter of a few hours Israeli forces had encircled the Church of the Nativity, preparing for a standoff. «A few hours later the Israeli tanks besieged the church, killing the person who was ringing the bell; his name was Samir,» Muhaneh recalled. Both Muhaneh and Wardiyan rebuffed Israeli allegations that they were holding the priests hostage, using them as human shields, saying instead that they had became friends with them. «I inform you that contrary to what Israel says, we had a fine relationship with the priests,» Wardiyan said. «The first two days we were given food by the priests and they were taking care of us as much as they could,» Muhaneh added. But as the standoff continued the food supplies were running out and Israeli troops were taking sniper positions around the church, making the conditions inside unbearable. «Eight Palestinians were killed by sniper fire inside the church,» Wardiyan stressed. «Another 28 Palestinians were injured, having been shot by snipers in the stomach so they would be forced to surrender to the Israelis.» Muhaneh alleged that the Israeli troops attempted to enter the church from the «Latin side» of the compound, five or six days after they had besieged its grounds. «For reasons we are not aware of, we found the gear of four Israeli soldiers in the site, which afterward was destroyed with flares and bullets,» he noted, saying the gear was seized by the Palestinians and photographed. Both men gave detailed accounts of the methods and techniques used by the Israeli forces to create psychological pressure for those who were inside the church, including the use of loudspeakers and special sound equipment to simulate aircraft and other noises. Now, a few weeks after the standoff at Bethlehem, they both appeared grateful to Greece for sheltering them, saying they had received a warm welcome from Greek authorities, and that they felt confident they would return to their families soon. «We tell our families to be patient, and we hope we will soon join them,» Wardiyan said. «I want to tell our parents and families that we left from Palestine and we went to Palestine,» Muhaneh declared in a nod toward Greek hospitality.