In a hot, angry place, hatred rises as the hope vanishes

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First there was the crack of a sniper's bullet fired from somewhere in the silent hilltop above us. Then there was another, and another and another. The Battle of Joseph's Tomb had resumed, making a mockery of yet another ceasefire.

First there was the crack of a sniper's bullet fired from somewhere in the silent hilltop above us. Then there was another, and another and another. The Battle of Joseph's Tomb had resumed, making a mockery of yet another ceasefire.

For a week a dozen Israeli troops have been trapped in an enclave in the middle of Nablus, an Arab Muslim city on the West Bank and a bastion of resistance to Israel's 33-year occupation.

By early afternoon dozens of Palestinian youths were teeming through the streets surrounding it, dancing through the sniper's cross-hairs, hoping to hide amid the smoke of burning tyres as they lobbed Molotov cocktails over the high wire fences and through the outpost's gun-slits. Bullets smashed into the pavements.

The young Arabs of Nablus have always wanted to prise out the Israelis in their midst and now they are risking their lives to do it. "If we don't do it now we will never do it and they will never leave us, " said Khalil Hanna, 24, who was watching. "We are all united."

Nablus is a hot and angry place that sits in a basin overlooked by two steep hills at least 1,000ft high. Israeli snipers just below the hilltops were plugging away yesterday in the hope of saving their men trapped within.

The sharp crack of the snipers' Barrett rifles - blasting 50mm exploding bullets into the streets below - echoed along the valley all afternoon. Two Israeli helicopters and a light aircraft watched. Now and then there would be a burst of fire from an AK-47 or M-16, the guns carried by Palestinian security forces. And sometimes we heard a stun grenade, tossed out by the beleaguered men within.

Last night the hills of the West Bank were alive with gunfire and lit up by Israeli army flares. The battle is reaching the point at which the Israelis will have to mount a rescue operation to save their soldiers in the tiny pocket of land that is Joseph's Tomb, which Israel has clung to despite the fact that the surrounding city is under Palestinian control.

The besieged are mostly Druze Arabs, members of the Israeli Border Police and army. On Sunday one of them, Madhet Yosef, bled to death from his injuries. The army said it was too dangerous to fly him out.

They are not the only ones at risk. On Monday a 15-year-old Palestinian boy was killed there by a sniper. Another boy, aged 14, was killed the day before. And just after 2pm yesterday, as mourners were milling home from his funeral, a sniper's bullet smashed into Sahar Shilbaya, 20 yards from where we stood.

She had been on a rooftop, chosen because she though it was safe. Her home is next to Joseph's Tomb. She had moved hundreds of yards away, well away from the battle and - she thought - the sniper's aim.

Mrs Shilbaya, 31, wanted to watch the fighting, because she was worried about her home. Yet in the end she became one of the many injured, hit in the thigh; another 13 were injured in Nablus by mid-afternoon alone.

No sooner had she been taken away in an ambulance, than her friends and relatives asked us in to bear witness to the impact that this conflict is having on women and children.

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