Bethlehem under siege

International | Israeli forces march into Palestinian-controlled areas in search of assassins, but are they going too far?

Issue: "Elaine Chao: Unlikely star," Nov. 3, 2001

The sound of glass underfoot is not what normally draws the attention of Christians trekking through Bethlehem's Manger Square. Crunching shards from shot-out windows echoed through the shuttered tourist district as hundreds of Palestinian Christians marched through an otherwise deserted town on Oct. 23. Demonstrators joined the heads of Jerusalem's Catholic and Orthodox churches in a plea for peace in the birthplace of Jesus. At least 15 Palestinians have died since Israeli tanks moved into Bethlehem on Oct. 19. One was an altar boy walking from the Church of the Nativity, which is believed to be the site of Jesus' birth. Israeli Defense Forces rolled into Bethlehem, even though it falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, in response to reports that Palestinian leaders in Bethlehem gave cover to assassins. They also sent tanks to neighboring Beit Jalla (see WORLD, Sept. 15) and other West Bank towns in what has become a signature cycle of revenge and violence that unfolded this way:

  • Oct. 16 Two Palestinian militants die in targeted killings by Israeli forces.
  • Oct. 17 Militants from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine assassinate Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi in a Jerusalem hotel.
  • Oct. 18 Palestinian militia leader Atef Abayat of Bethlehem is killed along with two others when a car explodes. The bomb blast is blamed on Israel. Palestinian gunmen open fire on the Jewish settlement of Gilo near Bethlehem.
  • Oct. 19 Israeli tanks enter Bethlehem and other Palestinian-controlled West Bank areas. Soldiers and armed Palestinians exchange gunfire.

The peace marchers arrived after days of round-the-clock shelling from both sides. They encountered a mangled awning from the burned-out Paradise Hotel and cars crushed by Israeli tanks along the roadside. Israel's show of force also toppled several traffic lights. Most residents stayed indoors and went without food and water, particularly after one of the Palestinians was shot on her way to buy milk. Shooting between Palestinian gunmen at a nearby refugee camp and Israeli forces trapped students and faculty at Bethlehem Bible College, located between Bethlehem and Beit Jalla. While most Americans left the area for Jerusalem, faculty members from the United States said they would wait out the gunfire indoors along with their students. "This is by far the worst situation we've been in during the last year of fighting," said American John Carlock, an Assemblies of God worker who remained in Beit Jalla with his family, but was confined to his apartment during the fighting. Neighbors brought food to his family during the heaviest shooting. This was the second time tanks rolled into Beit Jalla in two months. The territory was ceded to the Palestinian Authority in 1995 under the internationally brokered Oslo peace accords, and the Israeli incursions are galvanizing support for the Palestinian leadership not only among Muslims but also among the Arab Christians who make up a slim majority in the area. Increasingly they support Palestinian gunmen who attacked the Israeli forces because they believe Israel is trying to reoccupy the West Bank and threaten Palestinian sovereignty. They say Israel's punitive show of force, particularly the targeted killing of Palestinian militants, is costing Israel credibility in the war on militants by borrowing their tactics. The Palestinians make a distinction between the leadership of Yasser Arafat, who was elected in the newly constituted territories in 1996, and the radical Palestinian groups carrying out suicide bombings and assassinations. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon blamed Mr. Arafat for the Zeevi assassination even after the PFLP claimed responsibility. Failure to arrest the assassins, from Israel's point of view, is a sign of Mr. Arafat's complicity. The United States seems to be siding, for now, with the Palestinians. President George Bush last month announced his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state. In face-to-face meetings with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres during the West Bank battles, he publicly called for troop withdrawals. As if in reply, Mr. Sharon told parliament hours later his forces would leave the West Bank "when we are done with our mission."

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