Gun Battle In Bethlehem's Manger Square

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel denied on Thursday that it had blown the door off of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem but admitted that there was a gun battle going on in Manger Square in front of the church.

News agencies earlier quoted eyewitnesses in the area as saying that Israel had blown the door off the church or a gate in a perimeter fence about a hundred yards away from the site that many Christians revere as the birthplace of Jesus.

Reuters quoted witnesses as saying that they had heard three explosions and machine gun fire near the church.

Israel has declared Bethlehem a closed military zone, forbidding journalists and others from entering the area. Residents are under a strict curfew and confined to their homes.

Some 250 Palestinians have been holed up in the church for three days. Israel says they are armed gunmen but Palestinians say they are unarmed civilians.

Earlier an Italian journalist who had been inside was quoted as saying that there were more than two hundred armed fighters inside.

The Apostolic Delegation, the equivalent of the Vatican's embassy here, refused to comment on the situation.

The Israeli army spokesman denied that it had touched the church or that Israeli soldiers were inside.

"The only thing that is going on is a chase after armed gunmen and exchanges of fire in Manger Square," a spokesman said.

According to the spokesman, the Israeli army has been negotiating with the Palestinians in the church and has called upon them to come out peacefully but they have chosen to remain inside.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's advisor, Ra'anan Gissin, called the claims that Israel had damaged the church "baseless lies."

Israel is "not going to harm the church in any way," Gissin said in an interview on CNN. "We know very well how to protect those religious sites. It is Arafat and the Palestinian Authority that claim they are the protectors of the Christian sites there, who have misused and abused them for over a year."

Bethlehem-area commander Lt.-Col. Rami Magnezi was quoted earlier on Thursday as saying that the soldiers and commanders were well aware of "the international significance of firing on churches."

The Israeli army moved its troops and tanks into Bethlehem on Monday as part of what it considers its war on terrorism to arrest militants and search for weapons and ammunition.