Posted: 5/13/2002 8:36:43 PM EDT
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
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
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
"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, desperate people."
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 set free.
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 [martyr]," 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 retaliation.
BTT, for those who think the paleswines just ran into the first handy place when the evil Israelis started shooting.
Christians everywhere should be thanking God for the Israelis' willingness to put an end to the evil that these men did in the birthplace of Our Lord.
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