ON APRIL 2, 2002, Palestinian gunmen/militants/terrorists shot their way into the Church of the Nativity, taking as hostage some civilian citizens and members of the clergy.
One month into the siege, Los Angeles Times photographer Carolyn Cole sneaked past Israeli defense forces into the church, along with others described as "activists." She filed a first-person account that incredibly never identified the gunmen as terrorists. Her piece failed to describe how the gunmen entered the church, thus provoking the siege. Nor did she write that the terrorists included a hardcore group of thugs, including a prominent member of Hamas, the radical group behind many suicide bombings. Also, two of the men in this group were wanted for the slaying of a U.S. citizen who was also a resident of Israel.
To say that Cole's first-person report warmly sympathized with the Palestinian gunmen is to engage in understatement. The Washington Times also filed an account of the activities inside the church. Their two stories differ dramatically.
Los Angeles Times: "Men were rushing, trying to grab food. Except for weed soup, they hadn't eaten in three days. The church smelled of burning candle wax and the fried leaves from trees in the backyard. The blackened leaves had the scent of burned popcorn."
The Washington Times: "The Palestinian gunmen holed up in the Church of the Nativity seized church stockpiles of food and 'ate like greedy monsters' until the food ran out, while more than 150 civilians went hungry. They also guzzled beer, wine and Johnnie Walker scotch that they found in the priests' quarters, undeterred by the Islamic ban on drinking alcohol."
Los Angeles Times: "Those leaves and weed soup had been the staples until we arrived. The leaves tasted like pastry flakes with a hint of lemon but no sugar. In the frying pot, they looked black and crispy. The chef fried them in cooking oil that he got from the priests. The weed soup tasted like weak spinach, but when you were hungry, it was hot and satisfying, especially if it had a little salt in it. When you spoon it down, you think that you're having a meal, but you're not: It's just water and a plant that looks a bit like seaweed."
The Washington Times: "The indulgence lasted for about two weeks into the 39-day siege, when the food and drink ran out, according to an account by four Greek Orthodox priests who were trapped inside for the entire ordeal. A church helper said the quantity of food consumed by the gunmen in the first 15 days should have lasted for six months. As they feasted and boozed, Palestinian civilians subsisted on a meager diet, with barely enough for a single meal a day. Angry Orthodox priests showed two reporters about 20 empty bottles of whiskey, champagne, cognac and French wine on a kitchen shelf and on the floor of two rooms."
What about the sleeping conditions?
Los Angeles Times: "Blankets were spread on the 4th-century stone floor. There were even more blankets on the floors along the walls. In the left arm (of the sanctuary) slept the older men."
The Washington Times: "While in the church, the top Palestinian gunmen slept on comfortable beds in the elegant apartment of Father Parathaious, while others rested on mattresses there and elsewhere under high-quality woolen blankets. The civilians slept on cold tile floors in the main church downstairs."
And the violence?
Los Angeles Times: "The Palestinians said they had promised the Christian clergy in the church compound that they would not shoot out of the church. I never saw a Palestinian in the church fire his weapon. Indeed, I heard only one shot fired in nearly eight days – the one that killed Najezeh (a Palestinian gunman)."
The Washington Times: "Priests pointed to numerous bullet holes that appeared to have been fired from inside the room (belonging to Father Vasareillon). Nabil Abayat, a top militant Al Aqsa leader, was fatally shot. Mr. Abayat had died when a bullet ricocheted off a radiator. Another four gunmen died during the exchanges of fire and sniping, as well as a mentally retarded bell ringer who, the Israelis say, ran toward soldiers, ignoring orders to stop."
Some contrast. Call them two tales of the siege at the Church of the Nativity.
So what do we believe? Which portrayal more accurately represents what likely went on inside the Church of the Nativity? When the Palestinian Authority falsely accuses the Israelis of "massacring" 500 people in Jenin; when Yasser Arafat condemns terrorism while paying off the families of suicide bombers; when the Israelis intercept 50 tons of munitions from Iran heading toward the Palestinian Authority, this tends to diminish the credibility of the Palestinian side.
But apparently news, like beauty, lies in the eye of the reporter.