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'The Siege of Bethlehem'
With Dimitri Doganis
Director, "The Siege of Bethlehem"

Friday, June 14, 2002; 11 a.m. EDT

On April 2, as Israeli tanks rolled into Bethlehem, some 200 Palestinians -- many of them armed -- stormed into the fabled Church of the Nativity. They remained there for 39 days, as the standoff between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants at one of the world's most revered holy sites kept the world transfixed.

FRONTLINE's "The Siege of Bethlehem," airing Thursday, June 13, at 9 p.m. EDT on PBS (check local listings), takes viewers inside the siege at the Church of the Nativity. With inside access to key figures on both sides of the standoff, the show looks at the secret negotiations, strategies, gambits, and maneuvers employed throughout the siege, as the combatants sought to maintain the delicate balance between diplomatic persuasion and military might. Director Dimitri Doganis was online Friday, June 14 to talk about what he learned.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Phoenix, Ariz.: What a marvelous report! It took us directly into the situation -- it spoke fairly. It showed the human element in such vivid form. It showed the compassion and dignity of both peoples and it showed the frustration of the region. Thank you for bringing that to us who love and care so much about the future of Israel.

Dimitri Doganis: We're being joined by Director Dimitri Doganis.

The thing that I was struck by most forcefully was the human element to the crisis. The people I met on both sides, and this is the tragedy, were people just like you or I. More than anything what they wanted was to lead safe and productive lives, just as we do in the West.

Mill Valley, Calif.: How heavy a role did the army censor play in the final process of editing "Siege of Bethlehem?" (I once worked for AP Photos in Tel Aviv -- I don't disapprove of what the IDF censor does but I do know sometimes the process can be frustrating.)

The film/documentary was riveting. Thank you.

Dimitri Doganis: We did have to clear the film with the censor before we were able to leave Israel. But the IDF did not censor us editorially in any way. They did ask us to obscure the identities of some of the soldiers involved... which we agreed to do on the grounds that their lives may be put at risk if their faces were shown.

Denver, Colo.: I challenge you to actually speak with the people who were IN the church -- people who ran for their lives and hid in the church, clergy who according to the Vatican they were NOT being held hostage (IDF kept saying they were), the international peace activists, who brought food to the starving people (even your piece, -- glossed over as it was -- showed the lack of good will by the Israelis after the Palestinians showed good faith. Food was never sent in.)

Dimitri Doganis: We did try to speak to those coming out of the church. And there's one interview in the film with a young man who spent 23 days inside.

We were careful not to say that the priests were hostages, but guardians of the church, there of their own volition.

Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Great piece, I was so fascinated in the telling of it. So, where did the Palestinian diaspora end up? Have all those guys wandered back into the territories and put on their masks and chocolate chips (fatigues) by now? And are the nations who took some of them in "grateful" to Israel for that occurrence? Thanks much.

Dimitri Doganis: Thirteen of the most wanted men have been dispersed throughout the European Union. Although it did take some time to find countries willing to accept them. Twenty-six others were sent to Gaza and barred from returning to the West Bank. The rest were allowed to return to life as normal.

Somewhere, USA: How, if this is not a secret, did you obtain the confidence of your sources in this remarkable story, and you confident are you that the information they provided to you is accurate?

Dimitri Doganis: As with any documentary, the confidence of our subjects was gained through a long process of trust-building. I spent 15 days and nights around the clock with them in manger square and was allowed almost unrestricted access to what they did. I feel confident that they did not mislead us.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada: Who shot the video footage inside the church during the standoff? Was it one of the Palestinians or a western activist? How did the tapes come into the possession of the producers of the documentary? I may have missed it but I did not see credit given.

Dimitri Doganis: The videotapes were found by the army inside the church and given to the producers of the program.

Dimitri Doganis: They were "made available," not given.

Alexandria, Va.: A group of western pro-Palestinian protestors entered the church near the conclusion of the standoff.

Under what conditions did they finally leave the church? Did the clergymen ask the Israeli soldiers to evict them?

Are any of them still in Israel?

Dimitri Doganis: The protesters were the last people to leave the church. After the Palestinians had gone, the clergy asked the Israelis to remove them.

Boston, Mass.: Mr. Roberts,

Considering the location of this event, how involved were the local clerics and the other church communities in the negotiations and decision making? Did they, in fact, make a difference?

Thank you.

Dimitri Doganis: The clergy played a vital role in the siege. They were caught in the middle and behaved with bravery and dignity throughout.

Kansas City, Mo.: Why was "Frontline" granted access to this site and siege when no others were? The answer is obvious. Because, for reasons I cannot understand, ""Frontline offered a perfect opportunity for the Israeli government to reach a sympathetic U.S. audience, by the way the story was structured and presented.

I have sent strongly critical comments to the feedback page for this broadcast. If these comments are not posted, this will confirm my suspicions just stated. Shame, "Frontline" and PBS!

Dimitri Doganis: Any film about the Middle East always provokes strong reactions, often from both sides. The nature of the access we were granted to the Israeli army meant we were able to see their point of view. We were unable to obtain similar access to the Palestinian negotiators. We never surrendered our editorial independence and I'm sorry if you were disappointed with the end results.

Cliffside Park, N.J.: Regardless of your particular personal religious beliefs/background, what was going through your head the exact moment while you were filming officers of a national army finding humor in the prospect of the possibility that their actions may have resulted in the partial burning of one of the most esteemed religious sights of one of the world's three major religions?

Dimitri Doganis: I don't think that any of the soldiers found humor in the idea that the church might be on fire due to their actions. My understanding at the time was that one of the soldiers found it darkly humorous that they army was being accused of starting the fire when he had gone to such lengths to try and avoid any such eventuality. I felt it was exasperation rather than comedy in his tone.

New York, N.Y.: Please explore the lies that the Palestinians put forth. Why does the world media not put their "feet to the fire" regarding the thousands of bodies that there are supposed to be in the rubble of Jenin? When that did not prove to be the case the Arabs claimed that the Israelis were hiding the bodies. Why are they not held accountable for their false statements?

Dimitri Doganis: The issue of Jenin was in the headlines while we were filming in Bethlehem. But we did not spend any time investigating the claims of either side.

Atlanta, Ga.: What opinion did you form of the Israeli soldiers you filmed? Not the government, not the generals, not the policy -- just the soldiers. What do you think of the soldiers?

Dimitri Doganis: The soldiers come from all parts of Israeli society and are as varied as the nation itself. I think most would rather not have had their national service quite such an active tour of duty, although many felt the Army's actions were necessary to the security of Israel.

Edison, N.J.: What was the condition of the church when the Palestinians left?

Did the Palestinians steal anything from the church?

Did the Palestinians damage any church property?

Dimitri Doganis: When we entered the church, which was within an hour of the last Palestinians and protesters leaving, it was a mess. The evidence of more than 200 men camping out was plain to see. Some of the priests were clearly distressed at the state of the church. I did not see any evidence of deliberate damage done.

Dimitri Doganis: Thanks to everyone who watched the program and its always very rewarding when a film provokes heartfelt responses from those who do see it.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company