Trouble in the Holy Land

BETHLEHEM — The arrest of two Palestinian militants at a hospital that flies the Vatican flag has upset Holy Land Catholics, who have gone to great lengths to steer clear of armed conflict with Israeli civilians and soldiers.

According to a statement from the Israeli Army, two armed men, both Muslims, were arrested in the Holy Family Maternity Hospital compound on Aug. 25.

The hospital was founded in 1882 by the Sisters of Charity, who ran it until 1995. Since then, it has been administered by the Order of Malta, a 900-year-old order founded in the Holy Land.

The hospital, which serves Palestinian Christian and Muslim women and their babies, was badly damaged during Israel's military incursion into the town in 2002. Israeli shells and bullets shattered windows in the neonatal intensive-care unit, as well as the nursery and private rooms, according to hospital officials.

At the time, the Order of Malta called on the world community to condemn Israel's actions. While Israel apologized for the damage, it insisted that militants fired at its troops from or near the hospital compound.

The Order of Malta countered that “at no time were any Palestinian militants present on the ground. There has been no allegation by anyone that Holy Family Maternity Hospital has at any time exceeded its no-combative status.”

Israel said the militants arrested in August had a cache of weapons, including M-16s and Kalashnikovs. It said Adnan Abiat, head of the Bethlehem branch of the Tanzim militant group, and Ratab Ali Hasan Nabhan, another Tanzim operative, are responsible for the deaths of four Israeli civilians and four Israeli soldiers.

The army charges that the men were able to find refuge in the hospital compound for several months because they were “receiving assistance from members of the hospital staff.”

Although the hospital's director declined to comment on the allegations, Father Shawki Baterian, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, told the Register that the militants were hiding without knowledge of the sisters. “Maybe some of the employees of the hospital were helping them,” he said. The sisters were “shocked” to learn of the men's presence, Father Baterian said.

While he acknowledged that the local Church “has no formal policy on harboring people wanted by the Israelis,” Father Baterian stressed that “nobody should exploit the convents for any reason. They are intended for prayer and for helping people, not to hide anyone. They should not involve the convent in a war.”

Israel has often accused Palestinian militants of setting up base in civilian neighborhoods, including Christian communities in the Bethlehem area. Some Christians quietly admit that since the start of the Palestinian uprising four years ago, Muslim gunmen have shot at Israeli targets — including the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, on the outskirts of Jerusalem — from the rooftops of buildings owned by Christians.

Father Michael McGarry, director of the Tantur Ecumencial Institute, said it's important to keep such incidents in context.

“During the Israeli incursion in 2002, there were incidents of people shooting from (the village of) Beit Jala into Gilo,” Father McGarry said. “But it would be too strong to say that this was a pattern. There were only a few incidents.”

An Israeli spokesman countered that Israel entered Bethlehem “only after Palestinian gunmen and bombers from the area started attacking Israeli civilians.”

Sanctuary Abuse

Father McGarry stressed that when militants set up shop in Christian institutions or neighborhoods, such behavior must be roundly condemned as an abuse of Christianity's long history of providing sanctuary to those in need.

Referring to the gunmen holed up at Holy Family Hospital, Father McGarry said, “What we had here were some armed gunmen who hid weapons in a hospital, a place of healing, a Catholic place. It was a perfect place to hide them. Who would suspect that sisters caring for local communities would have guns?”

Father McGarry stressed that the sisters did not provide sanctuary to the gunmen.

“Sanctuary presumes there is a welcoming atmosphere,” he said. “This was not the case. Someone inside the hospital betrayed the trust of a Christian institution.”

There have been times when the local Church and its leaders have provided a safe haven, if not outright sanctuary, to people that Israel regards as militants. The most notable instance involved the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, not far from Holy Family Hospital.

When the Israeli military entered Bethlehem in April 2002 in search of militants, approximately 30 armed Muslims — as well as more than 100 unarmed civilians and clergy — sought refuge in the church. Israel laid siege to the church until the gunmen agreed to leave in return for safe haven overseas.

During the siege, a Franciscan official accused Israel of violating “every canon of human decency.” At the time, Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, said “military laws end at the walls of the basilica.”

Referring to the gunmen, Sabbah said, “They are refugees. They took refuge inside the church. For us, once they have taken refuge, they are human beings. They are no longer fighters.”

Sabbah said it was the Israeli “occupation” that forced the gunmen into the church, and they were therefore entitled to sanctuary.

“An exceptional situation was created that overrides all military codes. They should be allowed to leave unharmed and without threat of imprisonment,” he said.

Father McGarry said a distinction must be made between the two incidents. “In the Nativity church incidents, it was the incursion of the Israel Defense Forces that prompted people to enter the church,” he said. “That wasn't the case in the hospital.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.