Gunmen seize Bethlehem city hall

Gunmen demand money, jobs in PA security forces; Abbas promises to meet demands.

gunmen roof 298 (photo credit: AP)
gunmen roof 298
(photo credit: AP)
A group of Fatah gunmen on Tuesday stormed the Bethlehem Municipality building on Manger Square, demanding money and jobs in the Palestinian Authority's security forces. The attackers left the building 90 minutes later after receiving assurances from PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that their demands would be met. The attack enraged many residents, who accused the PA security forces of failing to impose law and order on the eve of Christmas. Mayor Victor Batarseh and other local leaders expressed outrage at the attack, describing it as a "severe blow" to tourism and the credibility of the PA. At least 15 masked gunmen, who described themselves as members of Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, forced their way into the municipality at noon. Armed with rifles and pistols, they ordered all employees to evacuate the building immediately and later closed all entrances to the compound. Some of the gunmen took up positions on the municipality roof. Scores of Palestinian policemen cordoned off Manger Square, ordering shopkeepers and a handful of tourists to leave the area. The raid came as the mayor and senior PA officials were attending a ceremony to inaugurate the new Nativity Market near Manger Square. Among those attending the ceremony was Latin Patriarch Michel Sabah, PA Tourism Minister Ziad al-Bandak and the governor of Bethlehem, Salah Ta'mari, as well as commanders of the various security forces in the city. A masked gunman who spoke to reporters on behalf of the attackers said he and his friends were trying to send a message to the PA leadership about the need to meet their demands, which include recruiting more than 320 Fatah militiamen to the security forces, resuming monthly payments to each one of them and guarantees that Israel would stop pursuing them. The spokesman said that the attack was deliberately carried out on the eve of Christmas to draw as much attention as possible to their predicament. "We don't want to disrupt Christmas celebrations," he said. "We only want the world to pay attention to our problems. We hope the Christmas festivities will take place without any problems." Ta'mari, and the local commander of the PA's Preventative Security Force, Colonel Majdi al-Attari, later entered the building to negotiate with the gunmen. Ta'mari said after leaving the municipality that he had reassured the attackers that he would make every effort possible to fulfill their demands. Ta'mari expressed deep concern at the attack, saying it would have serious repercussions on Bethlehem as it prepares for Christmas. "I believe that what these men did was a grave mistake," he added. "The Palestinian Authority will discuss the various aspects of this case." Ta'mari disclosed that Abbas personally talked to the gunmen by phone and promised to look into their demands. "President Abbas, who was personally following the case from Ramallah, talked to one of the gunmen by phone and assured him that everything will be ok," he said. Batarseh strongly condemned the raid and said the municipal would hold an emergency meeting to discuss the incident. "This is a severe blow to tourism and the credibility of the Palestinian Authority," he said. "We appeal to President Abbas to take immediate measures to end lawlessness and anarchy in Bethlehem." Hassan Abed Rabbo, a top Fatah official in the city, denounced the attack as immoral and inhuman, saying it was inconsistent with Arab culture and traditions. "This is not the way to express grievances," he said, calling at the same time on the PA to find a solution to the problems facing the gunmen. Over the past few months, disgruntled Fatah gunmen have carried out similar attacks on public institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The gunmen have accused the PA leadership of failing to merge them into its security forces as part of a comprehensive plan to dismantle the Aksa Martyrs Brigades and other militias. In Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, about 100 Fatah gunmen on Tuesday occupied the local governorate headquarters to demand jobs and money. In another incident in the city, masked gunmen kidnapped a man working for the PA's Ministry of Agriculture. Eyewitnesses said the kidnappers took the man in car to an undisclosed destination. The motive for the kidnapping was not known and no group claimed responsibility.