Lynch mobs run wild on Bethlehem's streets

As US envoy Anthony Zinni starts his peace mission, West Bank Palestinians resort to execution of collaborators
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Wars breed hate, inhumanity and lawlessness. And this degrading trinity was on full display in Israeli-occupied Bethlehem yesterday outside the ancient church marking the place of Christ's birth.

Manger Square has become a wild, blood-drenched place, the scene yesterday of a lynching. Two years ago, the Pope shuffled across its flagstones, blessing Catholic pilgrims who had come by the thousand from across the globe to glimpse him.

This is where the BBC broadcast the turning of the millennium live to the world which – labouring under the illusion that the Middle East was making peace with itself – watched contentedly as a flock of white doves crashed into the corporation's cameras, before reeling up into the midnight sky.

Dozens of armed Palestinian men – some wearing the fatigues of Yasser Arafat's assorted security services, others in the jeans and black jackets of the Tanzim militia – were strolling across the same flagstones yesterday.

Kalashnikovs slung across their chests, they lounged on benches once used by elderly American tourists recovering from queuing to see the now echoingly empty Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity's holiest shrines. They darted across the square's exposed south-eastern corner, fearful of being caught in the crosshairs of Israeli snipers on a nearby high-rise. They smoked and stroked their weapons.

For some, this is home now. Hundreds of young men have taken refuge here after the Israeli army stormed into the overcrowded refugee camps in which they lived, and rounded up many hundreds of males, taking off suspected activists for interrogation by its Shin Bet security agents. Knowing that their names would show up on Israel's computer records, leading to their certain arrest, they have preferred to seek sanctuary. At night they bed down on mattresses in a car park and under the empty frame of a quarter-built luxury hotel near Manger Square.

"The naive think that this is a place of shelter for them because of the Church of the Nativity," said Nafiz al-Rifai, a Bethlehem city councillor who helps organise food supplies for an estimated 600 displaced men. "But the political people among them know that Ariel Sharon [Israel's Prime Minister] knows no boundaries."

The latter point has become clear to the residents of Bethlehem's Holy Family Maternity Hospital, whacked yesterday by an Israeli tank shell. During a barrage of bullets and artillery, the shell punched a bowling ball-sized dent in the façade of its 200-year-old church.

But Manger Square was also witness to a barbarity of a different order. Early yesterday, two Palestinian men accused of collaborating with Israel were shot dead by a militia gang. They spat on the corpses and pummelled them with iron bars.

The bullet-riddled body of one of them, Mahmoud Sabatin, was tied to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged from neighbouring Beit Sahour to Bethlehem. He was hauled into the square, where his killers showed him off on the steps of the Bethlehem Peace Centre, just a few yards from the Church of the Nativity. Then they dragged him away again, by a rope tied to his ankle. His lifeless frame bumped across the flagstones.

The immediate family of the second lynched man, a 29-year-old mechanic called Mohammed Deifallah, live nearby and have been fired from their jobs and ostracised by neighbours. They could not get permission yesterday to bury their murdered relative on Palestinian land, and were hoping to persuade the Israelis to allow them to bury him in a Muslim cemetery in nearby Israel.

"This is brutal terrorism. Even animals don't do this," his wife told The Independent.

The arrival yesterday of the US envoy, Anthony Zinni, charged with forging a ceasefire, was heralded by more bloodshed. Guerrillas killed three soldiers by blowing up an Israeli Merkava tank in the Gaza Strip – their second successful strike on an allegedly invulnerable war machine.

Israel further stoked the fires of war by assassinating Mutasen Hammad, a leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades near the West Bank town of Tulkarm.