In better days, the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday teems with tourists who fill its gutters with spent film cases and other litter as they retrace the steps of Jesus on the way to the cross. Normally Arab shopkeepers hawk olivewood crosses and cats pick indiscriminately among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish trash.
"The streets are conspicuously empty," reported Riah Abu El-Assal, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem. He said he followed the traditional Good Friday walk March 29 amid "the sounds of helicopters, police sirens, and tank movements."
The sights and sounds of war took over Israel's capital on its holiest weekend. Israeli Defense Forces seized Palestinian strongholds, including the headquarters of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat at Ramallah, after Palestinian militants saturated the Passover-Easter holiday with suicide bomb attacks.
The latest attacks began on Passover eve March 27 when a Palestinian, strapped with 40 pounds of metal-laced explosives, blew himself up inside a banquet hall where 250 Jews were preparing for the traditional Seder feast. The explosion killed 26 Israelis.
On Good Friday an 18-year-old Palestinian student detonated herself just inside a Jerusalem grocery story, killing two others.
The next day an attack at a restaurant in the coastal town of Haifa killed 16 and wounded more than 30. Two hours later a suicide bomber detonated explosives outside the emergency medical center in Efrat, wounding six Israelis. According to Israel's foreign ministry, 125 Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists in March. More than 1,100 Palestinians and 400 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian revolt against the Israeli occupation began in September 2000.
Israel responded by sending tanks into Ramallah. Troops stormed the headquarters of Mr. Arafat and exchanged fire with his Palestinian guards. Mr. Arafat retreated to a second-floor office with only a few aides, an automatic pistol, a candle, and a cell phone. From there he took calls from international reporters while gunfire continued just beyond his office walls. "We are all seekers of martyrdom," he told the Arab news station Al-Jazeera. "We will not hesitate and will not retreat.... To Jerusalem we march-martyrs by the millions."
The siege proved an important test of character for Mr. Arafat, who has spent recent months at least publicly disassociating his organization from Middle East terrorist groups and their recent string of bombings. Now, he was praising the suicide bombers by name: "Am I better than that heroic youth Fares Odeh [March 27 suicide bomber in Netanya]? We are seekers of martyrdom. We are all seekers of martyrdom. The entire Palestinian people is a seeker of martyrdom."
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his troops did not intend to kill Mr. Arafat but to isolate him from the terrorist network he is apparently directing. Mr. Sharon did suggest he could send the Palestinian leader into exile abroad. "The state of Israel is in a war," Mr. Sharon said in a televised address Easter Sunday. "This terrorism is activated, directed, and initiated by one man-the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. Arafat is at the head of a coalition of terrorism. He operates a strategy of terrorism." Mr. Sharon called Mr. Arafat "an enemy of Israel. He is the enemy of the entire free world."
The sharp upswing in violence caught Christians in the middle of Easter festivities that are usually the highlight of the liturgical calendar in the land of Jesus' earthly life. But Christians in Israel are accustomed to being caught in the middle.
Mr. Riah said, "The atmosphere is frightening," and many stayed away from traditional church services. In Ramallah most services were canceled. Most residents could not leave their homes. More than 150 Israeli tanks overran the town, crunching stray cars into heaps of metal that served as roadblocks. Israeli troops occupied the Arab Evangelical Home and School. They sent children home and ordered staff members out of the building. It was the third time in three months the forces took over the campus. "People fear the worst," said Mr. Riah.
Like most Arab Christians, the Jerusalem bishop finds himself torn by the conflict. He publicly states his opposition to Mr. Arafat but identifies with the hard plight of most Palestinians. Mr. Riah is Palestinian but also an Israeli citizen. He was born in Nazareth and spent his early boyhood there in what he remembers as a close-knit community of Christians, Muslims, and Druze, where everyone went to one another's weddings. His grandmother taught him Old and New Testament scriptures by the light of a petroleum lamp. In 1948 his family was forced into exile after Israel incorporated Nazareth by force and confiscated his father's land. His family became refugees in Lebanon. Mr. Riah eventually managed to return to Nazareth, where he spent 32 years as the priest of the Anglican parish.
As Palestinians, Arab Christians face discrimination in Israel like their Muslim counterparts: inferior education, housing, and jobs, and restrictions on travel outside Palestinian-controlled areas. Those conditions-coupled with Mr. Arafat's refusal to complete a peace deal with Israel-provoked the latest uprising that began 18 months ago. As a minority among the Palestinians, Christians have had little real representation in Mr. Arafat's regime.
The Sharon government has tried to gain credibility among nonextremists on both sides. "Our war is not directed against the Palestinian people," said Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz. "We are fighting against terrorism and its perpetrators."
But sweeps by Israeli troops and tanks across Palestinian territory-in addition to the siege at Ramallah and roadblocks in Jerusalem-have many Israelis questioning Mr. Sharon's motives. Tanks rolled into southern Bethlehem just before sunrise April 1, witnesses said, stopping about 500 yards from the Church of the Nativity, built over what is traditionally understood as the birthplace of Jesus. Forces also moved into the surrounding villages of Al-Khader and Beit Jalla.
At Bethlehem Bible College, president Bishara Awad told WORLD: "We are at the mercy of [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon. He is invading Bethlehem."
From his office at the college on April 2, where he, his wife, and three staff members were confined, Mr. Awad told WORLD the campus was "surrounded by tanks" and gunfire had continued for two days. Because the college is located between two Palestinian refugee camps just outside Bethlehem, it has three times this year become a staging ground for Israeli assaults on Palestinian militants inside the camps. Several of the suicide bombers over Easter week came from those camps.
Mr. Awad could see seven tanks from his office and said Israeli forces had evacuated nearby highrises, taking over their rooftops to scout out Palestinian snipers. No one was venturing out into the streets. Electricity was still available at the college, but had been cut to many nearby residences. He said food supplies and water on campus and the surrounding area could last about a week but no more-in a city that is only a few miles from downtown Jerusalem.
Mr. Awad, a Palestinian Christian, called Mr. Sharon's incursion in Bethlehem "absolutely not necessary. The suicide bombings are terrible, but it is not the people in Bethlehem who are doing it. Sharon is against all people of Palestine."
Mr. Awad said a number of Bethlehem residents had been wounded and there were reports that one Catholic priest was killed by rocket rounds from Israeli helicopters. Pastor Mitri Raheb of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church reported that Israeli tanks shelled the pastor's home and the church, destroying its entrance and stone streets, as well as stained glass in the 110-year-old building. "Nobody is safe-not even in church," said Mr. Awad. That was before 200 Palestinian gunmen holed up inside the Church of the Nativity in a standoff with Israeli forces massed in Manger Square outside the church. Mr. Awad said, "This invasion is to kill the peace process. Sharon does not want to give Palestinians any state of their own."
Mr. Sharon long has carried a reputation for warmongering, going back to his invasion, as defense minister, of south Lebanon nearly 20 years ago. This time he is taking a cue from President George W. Bush, couching the latest retaliation in terms of a war on terrorism. "We must fight this terrorism, in an uncompromising war to uproot these savages, to dismantle their infrastructure because there is no compromise with terrorists," he said in his address.
Justice minister Meir Sheetrit followed that line: "In the next few days, the next few weeks, we will speak to him [Arafat] in the language he knows-not just him but all who support terror. Make no mistake-whoever has a hand in terrorism is going to be caught."
Mr. Sharon's attempts to link the Mideast conflict to the U.S war on terrorism are not only rhetoric. Groups like Hamas and Mr. Arafat's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the latest bombing attacks. Their ties to outside state sponsors-including Iran and Iraq-are plainer by the day.
American and Israeli intelligence officials say Mr. Arafat has crafted a closer alliance with Iran, with Iran supplying shipments of heavy weapons and millions of dollars to Palestinian groups to fight Israel. A March 24 New York Times report said two aides to Mr. Arafat met with Iranian officials in Moscow while Mr. Arafat attended meetings with President Vladimir Putin last May. The result included shipment of 50 tons of Iranian weapons earlier this year, which Israel seized off its coast.
The partnership, officials said, was arranged in a clandestine meeting in Moscow last May between two top aides to Mr. Arafat and Iranian government officials. The meeting took place while Mr. Arafat was visiting President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, according to senior Israeli security officials who declined to describe the precise nature of their information.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein has openly announced his financial support to families of suicide bombers. Intelligence reports say he may have donated as much as $1 billion to Palestinians in food and medical relief, as well as arms.
After the Easter assaults, Mr. Hussein said: "I am fully confident that God is pleased with this nation after its sacrifices reached the level that we see on television screens. A 16-year-old young girl sacrifices herself for the sake of God and in defense of the principles of the Palestinian people who are part of our nation. These are not one or two youths only, but also tens and hundreds of youths."
Meanwhile, in the Arab world street demonstrators tried to link the United States to Israel's actions against the Palestinians. Even in normally staid Manama, Bahrain, home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, about 1,000 mostly Palestinian demonstrators set fire to Israeli and American flags, shouting, "Yes to holy war. No to negotiations."
If the United States and Israel are to be tagged warmongers, a more basic problem looms for Mr. Arafat and his supporters. With each attack on Israel, they deprive themselves of another young, promising fighter. "Their future itself is dying," said Mr. Bush on April 4, when he announced the new Middle East mission for Secretary of State Colin Powell. Mr. Powell will have to confront Israel on its war tactics but also Mr. Arafat on his embrace of terrorism. How long will Palestinians want a leader who rejoices when his foot soldiers' self-destruct?