Shots ring out across the valley as villages go to war

Middle East: Nightly gunfights erupt in hilltop settlements as decades of hatred between Jewish settlers and Palestinians boils over
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This is a battle between neighbours. On one hilltop there are Israeli tanks and modern Jewish homes. On another, less than a mile away, there is an old Arab village and Palestinian gunmen. Only a highway, and decades of strife and hatred, separate the two.

This is a battle between neighbours. On one hilltop there are Israeli tanks and modern Jewish homes. On another, less than a mile away, there is an old Arab village and Palestinian gunmen. Only a highway, and decades of strife and hatred, separate the two.

By day, you would hardly know that these two quiet places form the front line in Israel's struggle to subdue the Palestinian uprising. But at night the conflict between Gilo and Beit Jala is becoming as nasty as any you will find.

It is happening in the few miles of semi-suburbia that separate two of the Holy Land's greatest religious centres which, until a month ago, drew pilgrims from across the world. Gilo was built on the southern edge of Jerusalem on land occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed contrary to international law.

Beit Jala, a Christian Palestinian village swathed in vines and bougainvillaea and dotted with elegant old Arab mansions, is on the northern perimeter of the not-so-little - and, these days, not at all still or sleeping - town of Bethlehem.

Along the bottom of the valley that separates the Jewish Gilo from its Arab neighbours runs the number 60 highway, a settlers' road winding down through two tunnels into the southern half of the West Bank. For years, the two sides have gazed in hostility at each other across the valley. But now war is being waged across it. Beit Jala is under Israeli blockade; Gilo has built an embankment and an 8ft-high wall to keep the enemy out.

The war has been going on intermittently since not long after the start of the Palestinian uprising, the so-called "Al-Aqsa intifada", at the end of last month. And last night it was in full flood with exchanges of machine-gun fire. The dispute deepened last weekend. Shortly before midnight on Sunday - to the horror of the Palestinians - the Israeli army sent Apache combat helicopters to fire rockets into Beit Jala. Its forces also fired at least one shell from a tank, three of which are sited across the road in Gilo. And it fired many rounds from machine-guns mounted on its tanks.

One of these missiles slammed into the front of Samir Nazal's house, into the room where two of his children - aged two and three - normally sleep. The shrapnel hit with such force it blasted large holes through the bedroom's back wall. Had the children not been moved earlier by their parents - who were terrified that they might be hit - they would have been lucky to survive.

"How much do you expect us to take of this sort of thing?" said a neighbour, Suad Shahwan, 37, as residents, mindful of the importance of publicity, showed journalists into the wreckage-strewn bedroom, with its broken picture of the Virgin Mary and dust-caked cuddly toys. "There is so much humiliation for our people. Only God knows how this will end."

A few yards down the street, Yassir Aid, 46, a Bethlehem taxi driver, was lying in his front room with two of his five children when the Israeli bullets flew in. Half a dozen punched holes in his heavy metal front door and more smashed through the window. "This is ugly, this is war, this is pure violence," he said yesterday. "What else can you call it?"

According to a spokesman for Israel's Defence Forces (IDF), the use of the helicopters and tanks came after Palestinian gunmen operating in Beit Jala after dark sprayed Gilo with bullets, hitting about 16 houses across four streets.

"We were sitting in our front room chatting when all of a sudden we saw flashes of light just outside our window," Shulamit Peretz told The Jerusalem Post. "At first we did not grasp that these were live bullets but after a few seconds I rushed my children into the washroom because that is the safest room in the house."

The IDF claims a warning was given to the Beit Jala villagers before the attack, although the latter dispute this. Questions abound whether its troops were aiming at the source of Palestinian fire or at civilian homes. A military spokesman openly acknowledged yesterday that the IDF's strategy was to try to turn the locals against the Palestinian gunmen who had moved into their midst by using the tactics of fear.

If the attacks by the gunmen continue, the village could expect more of the same, or worse, said Captain Eli Garshowitz, an IDF spokes-man. "More innocent people are going to be affected, and it is going to be more intolerable for people in Beit Jala to live a normal life. They are going to end up packing their bags and leaving," he said. A new battle broke out at Gilo last night when Palestinians and Israeli soldiers traded gunfire again.

But trying to terrorise populations is a flawed plan, especially in this dispute. It can just as easily harden opinion and anger. Certainly, having his house shot up by Israel did not have the desired effect on Mr Aid. He is a refugee who fled from his village close to Jerusalem to Beit Jala in 1967. "I have been moved once in my life by the Israelis. This won't make me move again. Nothing will. I would rather end up in a cemetery," he said.