Eerie calm in the streets of a town scarred by war

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The streets of Bethlehem were deserted. All around lay devastation: burnt pieces of cars blown to bits littered the way towards Manger Square, broken glass crunched underfoot. From the background came the rattle of gunfire, and the clatter of Israeli armoured vehicles approaching made you duck for cover. At one point, gunfire erupted behind us and two armed figures in black dashed across the street.

Usually, these streets would be thronged with tourists and pilgrims visiting the birthplace of Jesus Christ. But the shutters were down at the cafés yesterday. No tourists were there to see the smashed paving stones, or the water spraying crazily into the air from pipes ripped off the walls. No one was around; Bethlehem was a ghost town. That is, until you noticed the faces of Palestinians peering nervously out of the windows of their houses. A 24-hour curfew has been imposed and no one is allowed out.

Many of the damaged buildings in Bethlehem were paid for with money from the European Union – which is considering imposing sanctions – and individual European governments. A sign saying rehabilitation of the area had been paid for with money from Norway was half torn apart by shrapnel. One building, on the outskirts of town, had been systematically destroyed. It looked as if an earthquake had hit it, the floors had collapsed in on top of each other.

As the afternoon wore on, a few people ventured nervously on to the streets. A group of five Palestinian women asked us if the road ahead was safe. "My baby is hungry. We have no milk," one of them explained in broken English.

In the Church of the Nativity, the spot where Christ is believed to have been born, 200 Palestinian gunmen are still holed up, encircled by Israeli soldiers. Forty Franciscan monks and four nuns have volunteered to stay to prevent a bloodbath. They are running out of food and water.

The narrow streets that lead towards Manger Square, where the church is, are nerve-racking places. Turn a corner and you can come face to face with a jumpy Israeli soldier.

Inside the church, priests celebrated mass as usual. Even though no one could come to pray, the bells rang out over the empty streets of Bethlehem. Father Ibrahim Faltas told reporters by telephone: "We prayed to Jesus Christ to bring peace to this town. It is the first time ever the Nativity is empty. But we believe God heard our prayers and peace will return to Bethlehem, the town where Jesus Christ was born, no doubt about that."

Hassan, a middle-aged local man, leaned out of his window and stared at the wreck of his car below. "This is the worst it has ever been in Bethlehem," he said. He had watched as tanks crushed his car. "But it does not matter. My family are all alive up here. That is what matters." Hassan was born in Bethlehem, he has lived here 45 years, all his life.

Even the ambulances have to move carefully here. We saw an Israeli tank train its gun barrel on one vehicle as soldiers rushed up to check the occupants. At the hospital in nearby Beit Jala, ambulance drivers had been warned not to go and pick up the wounded in Bethlehem, the hospital director, Peter Qumri, said. The Israeli army had threatened to shoot at ambulances that tried to do so, he said.

The Red Cross has warned that people are dying because Israel will not let ambulances pick up the wounded, and the European Union's envoy has pleaded with army authorities to allow access.

But in Bethlehem, the ambulance drivers found their own solution. Basil Bshaarat was brought out of Bethlehem alive after he was hit in the thigh by gunfire. An ambulance driver smuggled him out of the city under the bodies of three dead men in the back of the ambulance.

His thigh bone is fractured along its length. For two days, it was impossible to get him out, and he lay in his university dormitory, with only a towel pressed against the wound to stop the bleeding. But after two days, the Israeli army allowed ambulance drivers in, with strict instructions only to pick up the bodies of the dead. One of the drivers hid Mr Bshaarat and another wounded man under the bodies in the back of his ambulance. They had been dead two days, and were beginning to rot. "The smell was terrible," Mr Bshaarat said.

A handful of others had been brought out the same way, but the doctors said more were still inside Bethlehem and could not be reached. In another ward of the hospital was Kate Irving, an Australian who usually lives in Britain, one of the unarmed peace protesters who were fired on by Israeli soldiers as they tried to hold a peace march last week. The doctors say she has six fragments of bullet in her stomach. She will be discharged in a few days, and says she is going back into Bethlehem, to continue her protest.