May 13, 2002
BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Residents of this biblical city are expressing relief at
the exile to Cyprus last week of 13 hard-core Palestinian militants, who they
said had imposed a two-year reign of terror that included rape, extortion and
The 13 sent to Cyprus, as well as 26 others sent to the Gaza Strip, had taken
shelter in the Church of the Nativity, triggering a 39-day siege that ended Friday.
Palestinians who live near the church described the group as a criminal gang
that preyed especially on Palestinian Christians, demanding “protection money”
from the main businesses, which make and sell religious artifacts.
According to Bethlehem residents, one of the group’s top leaders, Jihad
Ja’ara, 29, traveled around town with an M-16 rifle, terrorizing the community.
“Finally the Christians can breathe freely,” said Helen, 50, a Christian
mother of four. “We are so delighted that these criminals who have intimidated
us for such a long time are now going away.”
Others feared new gunmen will capitalize on the group’s disappearance and the
pullout of Israeli troops.
“Will new gangs come in?” asked Samer, 33, from the Christian suburb
of Beit Jala in Bethlehem. “The gunmen will start taking revenge on the weak,
Residents also said that Mr. Ja’ara and another top leader, Ibrahim Abayat, took
nine Muslims whom they suspected of collaborating with Israel into an
apartment near Manger Square and fatally shot them.
The executions took place shortly before the April 2 gunbattle between
Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters that sent more than 200 Palestinians
fleeing into the church, where they remained for 39 days.
Abayat, in a phone interview from inside the church while the siege was under
way, said he was personally responsible for the killings.
He said there was no need for a trial because “it was a well-known fact
that these people were linked to Israel.”
Abayat and Mr. Ja’ara are now at a seaside hotel in Cyprus, waiting to be
moved to an as-yet-unnamed European country, where many expect them to be
The gang has said it is part of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that has claimed responsibility for several
recent suicide bombings in Israel.
Zuhair Hamdan, founder of the Movement for Coexistence in Jerusalem, was
sitting on a chair outside his corner shop near Bethlehem in November when an
official Palestinian Authority car drew up with a squeal of brakes.
From the back window a gunman, who Mr. Hamdan says was a member
of the gang, emptied 12 bullets from a M-16 rifle, hitting him five times in the
abdomen, legs and neck.
Mr. Hamdan was so close to death in the hospital that he now jokes,
“They took my body to the cemetery but the cemetery rejected me.”
Mr. Hamdan said seven members of the gang were involved. Five of the seven
assailants have since died, at least one of them fatally shot by Israel during the
recent church siege, he said.
“The remaining two gunmen are being kicked out of Bethlehem, but
wherever they end up, someone will get to them and make them pay for all the
awful things they’ve done,” he said.
The gang apparently used its ready access to guns and close ties with Mr.
Arafat’s Palestinian security forces to extort money, run guns, smuggle drugs
and even demand that young women separate from their husbands.
After one woman was reportedly raped by a gang member, the
perpetrator was put in jail, but only briefly. His comrades reportedly forced the
jailers to let him go.
The gang’s hostility toward Christians extended to a 17-year-old altar boy
fatally shot during an Israeli incursion in October.
A small stone monument the family erected in Johnny Talgieh’s memory
on the spot in Manger Square where he died was kicked and spat on by gang
members, then toppled with ropes and cables and left smashed on the ground.
“They did not want to recognize that a Christian could be considered a
,” said a family member, “even though having that statue there would
have given the Palestinian cause a huge propaganda boost.
“They hate us Christians more than they love Palestine.”
Even during the recent siege, gang members who had not fled into the church
continued to demand their regular 10 shekels (about $2) from each taxi driver
going in and out of a parking lot close to the compound.
One who refused, saying he had no cash, was reportedly beaten up last month.
The gang apparently operated under the full protection of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah
organization and Tanzim, its military wing. During the 19-month uprising, they
have often fired into the nearby Israeli suburb of Gilo from church grounds and
the homes of Palestinian Christians in Beit Jala. When Palestinian gunmen
would show up at the door, Christian families often had no choice but to let
their homes be used as sniper posts and face the consequences of Israeli