Bethlehem 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 executions.
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, 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.
Written by an Arab journalist under a pseudonym for the Washington Times on may 25, 2002