Bethlehem: No longer still or silent

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The Independent Online

The Middle East war, a nationalist conflict detonated by a feud between Islam and Judaism over sacred sites, moved deep into the heartland of Christianity yesterday when Israel's tanks advanced to within a mile from Christ's birthplace.

Bethlehem, once the destination for millions of pilgrims and tourists, became the latest killing field in this conflict, a fire that has burnt away around the city's edges for months, but yesterday was creeping towards its centre.

For hours, Israeli tanks and snipers duelled with Palestinian paramilitaries across a landscape that is regarded as the home of one of the holiest places in Christianity, whose Christmas mythology has made the city into a by-word for calmness and serenity. But Bethlehem has long ceased being a "little town" and is rarely "still" or "silent" these days.

And never less so than now. By nightfall, three Palestinians were reported killed, and three Israeli soldiers wounded.

The thumps and crashes of war rang out loudly, even within the thick stone walls of the Church of the Nativity, the 4th-century church that stands over a grotto marking the cave where Christ is supposed to have been born. Yesterday afternoon, it was guarded by a group of Palestinian gunmen – mostly Muslims from Yasser Arafat's paramilitary Fatah group, but some Christians too – sitting next to their Kalishnikovs rifles on the cobble stones, a few yards from the church door.

The gunmen were weary, having spent most of the night on watch duty, in case the Israeli forces came into view. They also seemed depressed. They grumbled that their automatic weapons were nothing compared with the mighty arsenal of Israel's army. As the men spoke, their foes delivered a reminder of their military superiority by unleashing a couple of tank shells not far away.

The men were also angry. On Thursday night – only hours after the state funeral of Rechavam Zeevi, the 75-year-old ultra-nationalist Tourism Minister murdered in Jerusalem by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – Israel had exacted revenge by assassinating Atef Abayet, the head of the military wing of Bethlehem's Fatah branch, and two others. News reports said they died in a "mysterious car explosion". But, although Israel did not admit to this assassination, it looked likely to be the work of one of its death squads.

Mr Abayet had been the gunmen's boss, and they took it personally. "We will avenge his death," Nasser Labayet, 28, quietly declared.

They had endured a bad night, made sleepless by the shooting and the sound of Israeli Apache helicopters.

Shortly after Mr Abayat's killing, Palestinian fighters had fired guns and mortars across the valley from Beit Jala – an Arab-Christian town on Bethlehem's north-western edge – towards the Jewish settlement of Gilo, just south of Jerusalem.

Israel portrays such attacks as tantamount to an assault on what it regards as its capital city. In August, the Prime Minister and ex-army general, Ariel Sharon, responded by sending in the army, which held part of Beit Jala for two days and then withdrew after extracting an agreement from the Palestinians that there would be no more shooting. It was the only truce in this war that has held for any length of time. When it was finally broken, the Israeli Prime Minister moved his forces into Bethlehem itself.

In the early hours yesterday, Israeli tanks – 30 of them, some reports said – moved at least 1km into the city, making it the largest invasion of Palestinian controlled territory since the start of the intifada in September last year. The only consolation that Mr Labayet, the gunman, could see was the possibility that the West, spurred into life by the threat to this Christian centre, might finally intervene effectively.

"Bethlehem is the biblical town of Christ," he said. "This must help the Palestinian cause. The world will at last be sympathetic." But he did not sound convinced; like most Palestinians, he knows that Mr Arafat is now in a quandary.

Israel is demanding that he extradite the PFLP officials arrested in the past two days by his security forces. But it is hard to see how he can. The PFLP goals are the same as almost every Palestinian – to end Israeli occupation, and secure an Israel withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.

And proof has yet to emerge that the men under arrest were linked with Rechavam Zeevi's assassination.

Eighteen months ago this same place, Bethlehem's Manger Square, was filled with worshippers who came to see Pope John Paul II celebrate mass. It was here that a huge crowds crammed in to celebrate the arrival of new millennium, marked by the release of a flock of white doves and beamed live to television screens across the world.

Thousands of visitors from Italy, Spain, France, Russia, the US – in fact, the entire Christian world – would pour in by coach from nearby Jerusalem every day, to pray at the Church of the Nativity, before departing, bags stuffed with rosaries, fake icons and nativity sets bought from the surrounding – now moribund – souvenir stalls.

Yesterday, there were certainly crowds here. But they were mourners following the bodies of the three assassinated men. Their chant was the mantra of both sides of this war: "Revenge, Revenge, Revenge." The church itself was virtually empty.

Hanna Bandora, a 55-year-old guard, showed us the place in the wood-beamed roof where an Israeli tank shell struck during the 1967 war, a taste of a military occupation that continued on the ground until 1994 – when Bethlehem was handed over to Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority – but which never fully ended, and now is at risk of resuming anew. "It could happen again," he said, as he stared upwards from in the candle-lit gloom of the church's aisle. "But I don't think the Israelis would shoot at this place on purpose." The gunman outside agreed. This was probably why they had chosen this place as a haven to rest.

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