When Israeli tanks rolled into Beit Jalla Aug. 28, soldiers took up a command post above the town on Mt. Gilo. From there they could see at once the predominantly Arab Christian town and the Jewish settlement of Gilo they were trying to protect. The promontory was symbolic high ground for Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), who have battled Palestinian gunmen in the area since the latest intifada began last October. This time they showed up in force to wipe out the opposition once and for all.
Beit Jalla is also a kind of ground zero for understanding, or at least attempting to understand, this almost 1-year-old cycle of conflict. For the town's historically Arab Christian community, polarized by the two forces, Israelis and Palestinian Authority, neither political leadership represents its interests.
But for two days, the longest single incursion in the 11-month intifada, the two sides battled over Beit Jalla. The IDF replied to Palestinian gunfire with tanks, rockets, and bulldozers. Their attack killed a Palestinian policeman and wounded at least seven others. Dozens of homes were bulldozed or set ablaze by IDF mortar rounds. But in the end, the Israeli government caved to international pressure, chiefly from the United States, and removed both troops and weaponry.
The Bush administration reprimanded Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for using "excessive force." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell took two days from a vacation to negotiate a truce between Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, whom he persuaded to order an end to sniper attacks in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal.
For a town of 15,000 living in the shadow of both nearby Bethlehem and Jerusalem less than 10 miles away, Beit Jalla figures heavily in the ongoing conflict. It is located just inside the West Bank, where encroaching Jewish settlements have fueled Palestinian resentment. Last October Muslim gunmen set up their artillery in Christian neighborhoods to target Gilo and other Jewish enclaves south of Jerusalem. Those attacks coincided with Mr. Arafat's demand for Arab control of Jerusalem. Fighters targeted the gunfire and occasional rocket launches to draw the Jewish settlement into the conflict. Residents say the Palestinians sometimes fired only into the air just to get the attention of Israeli soldiers.
Palestinian gunmen confined their shooting to the city center until two weeks ago, when the sudden presence of IDF troops drew fire from all parts of town. "What had previously been a nightly occurrence and fairly predictable became all day and night with no predictability," said one Christian resident. Although he has lived with his family in Beit Jalla for two years and is accustomed to speaking freely about the conflict, he now asks not to have his name used because of the increasing danger. "We understand the Israelis' need for security but feel the response to gunfire on Gilo has been extreme and disproportionate," he said.
Residents say that when the tanks arrived, they drew sniper fire from every area as gunmen took up posts in both abandoned and occupied buildings. Longtime residents with no allegiance to either side were caught in the crossfire. Israeli rocket launches destroyed many homes. As both children and parents remained indoors, gunfire grew louder and closer. Fear and isolation for the Christians only increased.
"We give our lives, you give your homes," the Muslim fighters told Christians. Some residents believe their tactics are designed to lure Christians to fight as much as to taunt the IDF. Palestinian Christians frustrate Palestinian Muslims by not joining "the struggle." The Palestinian fighters also believe that if the IDF fired on churches or nearby Christian "holy sites," it would move Western sympathy their way.
For Christians, who make up 75 percent of Beit Jalla, patience with both sides in this conflict ran out a long time ago. They fear the Muslims want to take over Beit Jalla, but they fault the Israeli government for longstanding treatment of Palestinians as second-class citizens. The government subjects Beit Jalla, like other West Bank towns, to border closings and curfews. The collective punishment means the Christian community, which is not implicated in any of the violence, suffers with everyone else. Residents say barriers have not kept suicide bombers from reaching their targets, while they have prevented the nonterrorist majority from earning a living.
The intifada is economically devastating. Many Arab Christians have been without jobs and paychecks for 10 months. Tourism is flat, even though foreigners may move freely where Palestinians may not. Enrollment at Christian schools, including Bethlehem Bible College in downtown Beit Jalla, is down by more than 25 percent. Although Bethlehem plans to reopen this month, its graduation ceremonies were disrupted last spring and its campus is near a Palestinian refugee camp where fighting continues.
Until the fighting, the Bible college was a success story amid the Arab Christians' many struggles. Founded by local Arabs, both enrollment and facilities for the 22-year-old institution have grown steadily. Students are all Arab-Palestinian and all courses are taught in Arabic. But the school has become a casualty of the battles going on around it. Artillery exchanges in April shattered 67 windows on campus and damaged the school's central electrical system, an outdoor mural, and rooftop water tanks. In what witnesses described as unprovoked fire, an Israeli artillery shell hit female teacher Samia Ata while she unlocked her car door. She received serious shrapnel wounds.
Drawing fire into Christian areas, the Arab Christians say, has been the idea of Hamas and Islamic Jihad more than of Mr. Arafat. "It's more to Arafat's advantage, and he understands that, to have more Christians here," said the Christian resident. "These [radical Islamic] groups are a greater threat to his political stability than is the Christian community."
But the longer fighting drags on, the more clearly it is self-defeating for the Palestinians involved. If they wanted to make a statement about Israeli oppression, destroying the neighborhood has been a poor way to go about it.
The overwhelming use of force by Israel can also backfire. One Jewish resident in Gilo showed a Reuters reporter her washing machine, its top melted by hot shrapnel from Israeli tank fire (even as the laundry continued to churn inside).
As protection from both enemy and friendly fire, the government over the last month has bulletproofed at least one room in each of Gilo's apartment buildings. All the rooms, fitted with bulletproof windows, allow some protection from sniper fire now. But residents aren't as grateful as expected. "All we are asking for is a return to a normal life," said apartment dweller Yaffe Levy. "We don't want to live in a prison, in bulletproof rooms. We want to get our lives back again."