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All last week those stuck inside thought their ordeal might be close to an end, only to hear that the negotiations had faltered. Finally, rumor of a breakthrough came late Thursday night. Candles flickered over the carved doorways and limestone columns, over the scraps of mosaics and the filthy mattresses spread across the floor of the 4th century sanctuary. A top gunman from al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Jihad Ja'ara, spoke with a TIME reporter by cell phone. "Is it true that an agreement has been reached?" Ja'ara asked. He was more eager than most to make it out; the gunshot wound in his leg had become infected, and it hurt. "Alhamdulillah," Ja'ara said when he heard the deal was done: Thank God. "We're going to get out of here!" he yelled through the nave, and his words echoed in the dark. Others began to chant, "It's over! It's over!"
No one had ever planned for it to start in the first place. For weeks Manger Square had been a refuge for Palestinian gunmen like Ja'ara. By day they lounged on cheap foam mattresses in the spring sunshine, believing this was one place the Israelis would not dare to strike. By night they sneaked out to the edges of town to shoot across the valley at Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem built on occupied land. On April 2, Ja'ara and his gang clashed with the Israelis in the Fawaghreh neighborhood of Bethlehem's Old City. A bullet shattered Ja'ara's leg three inches below his knee. His comrades carried him to Manger Square. As Israeli soldiers converged, the gunmen, anticipating that the Israelis would not hesitate to enter the square this time, fled into the church with members of the Palestinian Authority's security forces, a group of Hamas gunmen and about 100 bystanders.
"At first, we thought this would be over in a matter of hours," recalls Rahid Shatara, who works for Palestinian military intelligence. Khalid Salah, an officer from general intelligence trapped inside, says it wasn't until the second week that it dawned on him that the siege might last a long time. "When anybody tried to go out onto the terrace, the Israelis would shoot," he says. "That's when I realized that they had no intention of letting us out."
The Israelis knew they could not storm one of the holiest sites in all of Christianity. But there were dozens of accused terrorists inside, including Ibrahim Moussa Abayat, head of the Tanzim militia in Bethlehem, who was convicted of murdering a fellow Palestinian by a Palestinian court two years ago but was released after a few weeks because his violent clan rioted. Israel blamed him for the June 2001 shooting death of Lieut. Colonel Yehuda Edri. They were not about to let him walk away.
And so they settled in for a long wait. Inside the church, nuns tended to the wounded. According to Shatara and Salah, Palestinian Authority officials divided themselves into teams based on their jobs--military intelligence, general intelligence, tourist police, regular police, National Security Forces. They rotated guard duty, cleanup, food preparation. Each appointed one delegate to a food committee, to be sure everyone got a daily ration.