Gunfights erupt on fringes of Bethlehem

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The Independent Online

Israeli armed forces took more Palestinian-controlled land on Wednesday, thrusting into the Gaza strip, sealing off a town and destroying police outposts ­ only one day after they reoccupied part of an Arab town close to Jerusalem.

Fierce fighting swept across the low hills of Bethlehem on Wednesday night hours after a ceasefire was supposed to have taken force, while the international community scrambled to persuade Israel to end its reoccupation of the Arab town of Beit Jala.

Reports of a possible European Union-brokered truce had no sooner been confirmed than it appeared to have failed on the ground, and the town of Christ's birth was echoing anew with the sound of heavy machine-guns and tank shells as both sides battled over this ancient landscape.

Although the part of Beit Jala taken over by the Israelis is on the north-western edge of Bethlehem, there is a risk that their forces will eventually be drawn down by the Palestinians into the holy city itself ­ a development that would force the international community into deeper involvement and push the conflict to a new level.

Israel's tanks grabbed more Palestinian-controlled land on Wednesday by thrusting into the Gaza Strip, destroying police outposts and sealing off a town. Their arrival ­ flatly denied by Israel but seen by correspondents ­ was described as an act of reoccupation by angry Palestinian officials, who still recall the days when Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, was the Israeli military commander in charge of "pacifying" the strip shortly after the 1967 war.

Back then, his forces knocked down many hundreds of Palestinian houses, assassinated scores of suspected guerrillas and flattened farmland. History ­ to the Palestinians ­ appears to be repeating itself, with the same lack of progress.

on Wednesday night there were reports that both sides had agreed a deal, struck between Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, Israel's Foreign Minister, under which Israel would withdraw its troops from Beit Jala by 8pm if Palestinian guerrillas stopped firing on Gilo, a Jewish settlement on Jerusalem's edge.

Nothing is impossible in the Middle East but it seemed dead in the water. Mr Peres's influence on Mr Sharon and the generals is limited. And so is Mr Arafat's control over the paramilitaries. At 11pm ­ after two ineffectual Palestinian mortar attacks on Gilo ­ fighting raged on in the Bethlehem area. The contours were emerging of a classic dispute: if the Palestinians agreed to stop shooting, it would justify Israel's act of reoccupation but Mr Sharon, an ex-general, would be equally reluctant to withdraw his troops under fire.

Until talk of the ceasefire, there was no sign of any relief to Beit Jala's misery. While life continued as normal in the Gilo new town, the Arabs in the old villas across the valley ­ many of them well-educated middle-class professionals who used to work with Israelis ­ did not seek this conflict and have long resented the Palestinian gunmen who have been coming in to fire at settlers. on Wednesday, still sheltering behind the stone walls of their homes, they were in the thick of it.

Those who could sleep amid the night-time gun battles on Wednesday awoke to find Israeli tanks in their streets for a second day. The occupied half of town remained under curfew. Many of the residents of the rest of Beit Jala also stayed indoors. In the first hours after the invasion, Brigadier-General Girshon Yitzhak, an Israeli commander, had assured reporters his troops had been "sensitive" to the religious sites in the town, whose large Orthodox Christian community, 600 or so Lutherans, and small minority of Muslims are served by four churches and a mosque. "We didn't touch any holy places," he said.

But, as usual, the evidence on the ground told a different story. The entrance to the mosque's compound is blasted and charred by shrapnel marks from a grenade. An orange Volkswagen by the gate had been heavily sprayed with bullets. There were bullet holes through the front door and in the mosque's windows.

Perhaps the Palestinians had shot at the Israelis from here, and the Israelis were merely firing back. But the claim not to have touched a holy place is a lie.