Peace call falls on deaf ears in Bethlehem

Crisis in the Middle East: Teenagers reveal intense support for Hamas as Israelis prepare crackdown on two terrorist 'fronts'
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As Israel ordered all Palestinians on the West Bank to stay in their towns and villages yesterday, 1,000 people attended a peace rally in Manger Square in Bethlehem. It was billed as a rally of school teachers and pupils to show their rejection of the suicide bombers of Hamas and support for peace with Israel.

It did not quite work out that way. Father Erando Vacca, an Italian priest who is principal of the St Jean Bosco technical school in Bethlehem, said: "Half of our 108 pupils would not come because they are pro-Hamas. You cannot change their minds. They say they [the bombers] were martyrs."

Even among the teenage boys at the rally, organised by the Palestinian Ministry of Education, some refused to condemn the suicide attacks. Ibrahim, 17, said: "From the human side I am very sorry to see the young people killed in Tel Aviv, but politically I support Hamas because the Israelis did the same thing to us."

His friends nodded assent as Ibrahim outlined what was wrong with the Oslo peace agreement. "It is a peace without rights," he said. "We don't have all our land, we don't have control of water and electricity, our towns are sealed off from Israel and workers in Gaza can't feed their families."

Ibrahim noted the disadvantages. "Now all the world will think the Palestinians are terrorists. Everybody will defend the Israelis." But he thought the assassination of Yahyah Ayyash, the chief Hamas bomb maker, in January showed "the Israelis wanted revenge".

Bethlehem is a moderate town with a population which is 40 per cent Christian. Israeli soldiers evacuated the police station just before Christmas and it is now occupied by affable Palestinian policemen. "You can see that people support peace," said Jamil Hijazin, an English teacher. "Three-quarters of people here voted for it in our election in January."

This may be true. For young men like Ibrahim, however, Oslo is a peace without glamour which accepted the reality of Palestinian defeat in 1948. Its great advantage to Palestinians was that it removed the Israeli occupation and made their lives much easier. But since the Tel Aviv bombing benefits of the Oslo accords are being thrown into reverse. The "iron fist" policy with which Israel tried to combat the Palestinian intifada rebellion after 1987 is returning.

Jerusalem is sealed off to Palestinians. Movement on the roads between the autonomous areas has been stopped. Shops are closed on the main road south to Hebron, which is now unlikely to be evacuated. The homes of two bombers are scheduled for demolition at al-Fawwar refugee camp.

Ami Yahalon, the head of Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service, and now heading an inter-agency task force designed to hunt the bombers, says that there are hundreds of Palestinian youth "waiting in line" to commit suicide attacks. He told the Knesset that in al-Fawwar, with a population of 6,000, Israel had found 30 to 40 youths between 15 and 20 who had declared their willingness to carry out a suicide attack. He said bombers were mainly recruited from those studying Islam in mosques and seminaries.

"Hamas is an idea, not an organisation," said Mr Ayalon. "And that is a difficult dilemma with which Arafat will have to deal." He said that as long as the preaching in praise of martyrs continues it will be easy for Hamas to find recruits. Israel is therefore insisting that the whole Hamas infrastructure - providing the ideological basis for the bombing campaign - has to be eliminated by Mr Arafat.