A group of 39 Palestinians who were exiled by Israel, after they sought refuge in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002, have submitted an appeal through the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas that they be allowed to return home.The men in question are former combatants, who were allowed by the priests of the Nativity Church to disarm and seek shelter inside the church along with a number of civilians during the 40-day Israeli siege on Bethlehem in 2002. The church is located in Bethlehem in the place where Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born in a manger. During the siege, Israeli forces killed 8 people, including the church’s bell-ringer, and wounded a monk.

26 of the men were exiled to the Gaza Strip, and 13 to Europe. They have not been allowed to work, or to receive visits from their families, since they were sent into exile more than 8 years ago.

On Sunday, the 26 men in exile in Gaza met with an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, submitting a joint letter signed by all 26, appealing for their return home to Bethlehem.

Fahmi Kan’an, the spokesman for the exiled men, told reporters, “[i]n light of talks on resuming direct negotiations, we demand that the deportees’ cause be taken seriously, as we enter our ninth year in exile”. In addition to appealing for a return home, the letter also asked for family members to be granted permits by Israel to visit their exiled family members, permits which Israeli authorities have thus far denied.

The exiled men hope that the Palestinian President will appeal to the Israeli Authorities on their behalf, as the state of Israel controls the terms of their exile. The Palestinian President himself has no actual power over the situation, but they hope he will appeal to Israel on their behalf.