Is there a plot to drive out the Jewish settlers?

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The missiles smashed into the corner of the Ksiyeh family home just after dark on Friday.

The missiles smashed into the corner of the Ksiyeh family home just after dark on Friday.

The first blasted a cavity in the wall and the second flew right through a hole, punching through the corridor floor before exploding in a neighbour's kitchen.

Israel and the United States are blamed for obvious reasons. An Israeli helicopter gunship fired both missiles; and the missiles were made in the United States. The Ksiyeh children have collected the shrapnel in a wooden box and the evidence is there for all to see. One of the missiles - probably the first to hit the house, on the edge of the Palestinian village of Beit Jala - was an AGM 144-C air-to-ground rocket made by Boeing and Lockheed-Martin in the US states of Georgia and Florida.

The second was a more modern projectile, carrying the US designation number 93835C4286 and manufactured in June, 1988. It is not hard, looking at the metal computer strips with their tell-tale factory markings, to see why the people of Beit Jala do not weep over the American dead of the USS Cole.

Yet the villagers here - 60 per cent are Christian - are not vengeful people and the Palestinian gunmen firing across the valley at the Jewish settlement of Gilo, are not from Beit Jala.

The little Palestinian hamlet with its sign dressed in stone, Orthodox churches, frescoes of St George and the Dragon and massive, thick-furred street cats is not exactly a battlefield. Not yet. But it now stands on a new West Bank frontline, regularly punished by Israel for the bullets that smack through the windows of the Jewish settlers across the Wadi.

A week ago, gunmen - almost certainly a "Tanzim" Militia unit - fired first at the Israelis. In return, a Merkava tank - you can see it sleeping under a blue tarpaulin on the opposite hillside - put three shells into one of Beit Jala's narrow streets. One blasted into Margot Zidan's garage, destroying her brand-new VW Golf and crushing the ancient stone gateway above. War and the hand of God exclude insurance payments. Another shell blew a hole in the second floor of Jamil Mislet's home down the road.

And the Plot - so essential an ingredient of any Middle East folly - now engulfs this village.

The local Palestinian version goes like this: true, some Tanzim men fired rifles from between the houses, but Israel had also sent Palestinian collaborators with guns into the village to fire at the settlement, and thus provide the Israelis with an excuse to deploy four Merkava tanks on the other hill. The Israeli version of the Plot is even more ingenious: The Palestinian Authority deliberately provoked Israeli gunfire into Christian homes, in the hope of bringing the Vatican onto the Palestinian side in the new intifada.

The truth seems more prosaic. The settlement of Gilo, on the heights above Beit Jala -"Gilo" is the Hebrew version of "ala" - and the Jewish land was confiscated from local villagers. It is in sight of Jerusalem and by targeting its houses, the Palestinians are most definitely sending a message to the Israeli government: settlements are part of the new war. Indeed, the attacks may even prove to be the embryo for a still unconceived plan to drive settlers from the occupied territories.

However, the Christian and Muslim villagers also claim that the most recent attack - the double-missile strike on the Ksiyah family - was unprovoked; there had been no shooting from the town prior to the assault, which is why they are taking no chances. Three workmen were yesterday building a parapet of concrete blocks around the local telephone switching box at one end of Beit Jala. Pasted to a telegraph pole next to it is a photograph of 13-year-old schoolboy Mrayad Jawaresh, who died while returning home from school to the neighbouring refugee camp last week. He is another child "martyr" - killed by gunfire, provenance unknown - to support the Palestinian cause.

But did the villagers support the Palestinians who fired into Gilo? They would shrug when I ask this question. "These men have silly little guns and they fire from between our homes," one said. "What can we do? But how can we stop the Israelis? They know it's not us that's shooting at them."