Three Israeli soldiers killed as more battles rage

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The Independent Online

The shadows were beginning to lengthen yesterday when the percussion of heavy machine-gun fire began to bounce through the low hills and valleys that surround Bethlehem.

The shadows were beginning to lengthen yesterday when the percussion of heavy machine-gun fire began to bounce through the low hills and valleys that surround Bethlehem.

This was not a routine exchange - the low-level fire-fight that happens every day as Israelis and Palestinians try to resolve on the ground the issues they could not settle round a negotiating table. Another kind of battle had begun, not only here but across the occupied territories. By the end of the day three Israeli soldiers and six Palestinians were dead.

There was a flash and plume of dust from a Palestinian marble factory that stands above a grove of olive trees, as a missile slammed into its side. An Israeli helicopter hung above the rooftops, west of the mosques and churches of central Bethlehem, including the Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where Christ is said to have been born. A few months ago thousands of Western pilgrims filed in to kneel and kiss the holy spot. Now it is on the edge of a war; now the place really needs the prayers.

The guns banged away - heavy machine-guns answered by automatic weapons, accompanied every now and then by a deep slamming noise, which sounded like tanks firing. It came from around the apartment blocks of Gilo, the Jewish settlement built on occupied Arab land which the Israelis see as a neighbourhood of south Jerusalem. It came from Beit Jala, the old Christian Palestinian village which tumbles down the hillside opposite and where the Tanzim militia - mostly Muslims - appear to have opened a front in their war with Israel.

And the gunfire came from el-Khadr, another Arab town on Bethlehem's western edge. Perhaps this was where it all started yesterday. The Israelis said two infantrymen were killed after being ambushed by Palestinian militias. Even beforehand the army had an operation aimed at crushing the Palestinian gunmen. The next stage will be worse. Israeli sources say paratroopers will flood into the zone over the next week to suppress the uprising.

The third Israeli soldier was killed at a settlement near Jericho, prompting the army to fire tank shells into the West Bank town. Eight soldiers have been lost in the past five weeks - including two killed by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah. The latest deaths are unlikely to go unpunished. The politically enfeebled Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, cannot afford to do otherwise.

The ferocity of yesterday's firefight suggested vengeance had begun. When we were taken by a Palestinian on to the roof of a seven-storey building in Bethlehem for a better view, an Israeli soldier appeared from an outpost below. He looked up calmly, aimed and fired. The bullet singed past a few feet away. The Israelis do not like people on rooftops, perhaps because they fear gunmen or spotters, so they force them down.

This low-level war may be getting fewer headlines but it is getting nastier. A bomb in west Jerusalem injured one person. It happened inside the 1967 Green Line, in Israel itself.

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister, was due to leave last night for a meeting with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. Mr Barak said that the Nobel peace laureate would give Mr Arafat a clear message that he must immediately end the violence. "Shimon Peres is going to Gaza and he will bring from here our clear message to chairman Arafat that the violence cannot go on and it is up to the Palestinian Authority to put an end to this violence."