Student Helps Palestinians at Church Standoff

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A UC Berkeley student remained inside the besieged Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem Sunday as reports from the region indicated a deal had been struck for Israeli forces to release the more than 100 Palestinians holed up in the building.

UC Berkeley junior Robert O'Neill entered the church Friday with nine other members of the pro-Palestinian organization International Solidarity Movement to "bring protection to the Palestinians and to help them not be assassinated by the Israeli Defense Forces outside," O'Neill said.

More than 200 Palestinians, including gunmen, fled to the church more than a month ago when Israel launched a major incursion into the West Bank. And though Israel has removed troops from most other towns in the Palestinian-controlled region, Israeli snipers and tanks maintained a tight perimeter around the church complex over the weekend.

Israel has said the church is harboring 40 "senior terrorists" wanted by the state. They want the terrorists to surrender or go into exile, while Palestinians want them released to Gaza.

The Associated Press quoted a Palestinian source Sunday who said there was a deal between Palestinian leaders and Israel to let some of the captives inside the church go free and others to be deported to Italy or Gaza. But a top Israeli official told AP that progress had been made, but no deal had been struck.

The developments came as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon traveled to Washington to meet with President Bush.

A Middle Eastern studies and anthropology major, O'Neill had been studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo before he went to the West Bank with the solidarity group to support the Palestinian cause.

Before he entered the church, O'Neill worked with the group to aid Palestinians in Hebron, one of the cities Israeli forces entered during the recent military operation.

When Israeli soldiers withdrew from Hebron and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters, O'Neill and other members of the solidarity movement decided to move to Bethlehem.

"We went here the same day Arafat was freed from his compound," O'Neill said. "We're letting the world know there's still a siege here. The international community is quick to ignore that fact."

An international presence in the church protects the lives of the Palestinians within it because Israeli troops run the risk of accidentally harming a non-Palestinian, O'Neill said.

O'Neill and the other members of the organization made a failed attempt at getting inside the church before gaining entrance Friday.

Better communication with those inside enabled the group to enter the church the second time, O'Neill said.

Arms raised in the air and equipped with food-filled backpacks, the 10 International Solidarity Movement members and one Los Angeles Times reporter rushed past Israeli guards and made it to the church door. There, the group members unfurled a banner reading, "Free Palestine," O'Neill said.

"We made it through the tanks and barbed wire," O'Neill said. "We studied the plans well enough that we knew how to get past (them)."

The Palestinians within the church were welcoming to O'Neill and the other group members, O'Neill said.

"They told us they feel safer because of us," he said. "They deeply appreciate all of our presences here and they tell all of us that."

O'Neill described the situation within the church as "stable."

"Despite what media sources say, people are getting along," he said. "The (Palestinian) military personnel are doing an excellent job keeping the situation stable, and they're treating us well."

But O'Neill said the condition of those inside the church worsens with each day. The supply of rice, beans and chocolate he and the group brought with them has dwindled, forcing Palestinians and internationals alike to eat whatever they can find.

"When we got here, the people were eating leaves and grass," he said. "The food we brought is the first food they've seen in days. (Now) we're reduced to eating a soup concoction of lemons, leaves and whatever they find on the ground."

Solicitations for food and medical aid made to international embassies in Israel have been unanswered, O'Neill said.

He said the lives of everyone inside the church, including himself, are at constant risk under the watch of surrounding Israeli soldiers.

Outside the church, Israeli forces have constructed a 150-foot "giant crane" equipped with a gun and a video camera, which the Israeli army has used to pinpoint and shoot people in the church's courtyard and corridors, he said.

O'Neill reported that 24 people inside the church have been shot by Israeli snipers, seven of whom have died.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that an Israeli army spokesperson said the most recent shooting was precipitated by the victim brandishing a gun. The same spokesperson confirmed seven people have been killed in the standoff.

Despite the dangers those within the church face, O'Neill said both Palestinians and internationals are determined to remain within it.

"Nobody is going to surrender to those bastards outside," he said. "These people, they've already been here for 36 days now."

O'Neill said he does not plan to leave the church until the standoff is over and does not regret his decision to join the cause.

"I have never been more happy in my life," he said. "We're making a substantial difference for these people. We stay here until the stand ends."

O'Neill's father, Richard, said he supports his son's decision to join the Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity.

"It's what he believes in. He believes very passionately in it," he said, although he expressed concern for his son's safety.

Also inside the church is UC Riverside student Nauman Zaidi, whom Robert O'Neill said is unharmed and in good condition.


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