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If the Israelis couldn't draw out their quarry together, they could pick off the gunmen one by one. Outside the church, they set up a 300-ft.-tall crane and floated a blimp attached to a high-tension cable, mounting surveillance cameras on each. A team of intelligence officers kept track of movements in the church compound and relayed the information to snipers from the Special Police Unit, an elite squad that has the best marksmen in the Israeli services. The intelligence officers communicated with the snipers by using an aerial photo divided into tiny sectors; that made it easier to describe where a Palestinian had been spotted.
On May 2, when a similar siege at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah finally ended, the men in the church were certain they would be liberated next. They began to fire into the night air. The Israelis, thinking the shots were aimed at them, launched flares to illuminate the area. The flares, as they came down, set fire to some rooms in the Franciscan area of the complex. An officer of the National Security Force, Khaled Siyam, 25, rushed to put out the fire; a sniper's bullet killed him instantly. Disgusted by the carelessness of his comrades who fired into the air, an intelligence officer bitterly told a friend, "I wish the Israelis would come in here and slaughter every one of us."
Once Arafat was freed, negotiations over Bethlehem did pick up. At a May 3 meeting in Ramallah, Arafat's Cabinet ministers questioned his willingness to accede to U.S. and British proposals that some of the men inside the church be deported. "What can I do? This is what the Americans want," Arafat complained. "I can't continue saying no to the Americans. You should show some understanding of my situation."
The basic framework of a deal was pounded out by last Tuesday night. One last wrinkle came from, of all places, a group of international "peace activists" who had marched into the church the week before, claiming solidarity with the Palestinians inside and taking them food and supplies. They were accompanied by Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole. "They wanted to be dragged out by Israeli soldiers on camera," says a church official who helped negotiate a resolution to the siege. In the end, they were the last to leave the church, taken out forcibly by Israeli authorities.
The 13 men facing deportation were the first to leave the church. "The men sent abroad were heartbroken and crying," says Mazin Hussain, 28, an officer in the Palestinian Authority's drug-prevention unit. "They sacrificed themselves so the siege could end, for the sake of the people of Bethlehem." When the group of 26 militants entered Gaza by bus, they were greeted like returning heroes by the crowd lining the streets. That evening, military intelligence's Shatara, 23, chatted by cell phone with his girlfriend back in Bethlehem. "Yes, I've had a bath," he told her. "Yes, yes, yes, I've had a bath."