Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World | The Middle East

Gun Battles Rage in Bethlehem

Warfare: Soldiers order armed Palestinians inside Church of the Nativity to surrender, witnesses say.

April 03, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIT JALA, West Bank — The people of one of the Holy Land's holiest places awoke Tuesday to the fog and fury of war.

In the hours before dawn, the clouded skies of Bethlehem came alive: an Israeli reconnaissance plane, swooping F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters with machine guns chattering. Morning brought rain and tanks, cold winds and armored personnel carriers that rumbled over muddy hills into the ancient city.

The shooting crescendoed as Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers fought battles in a warren of cobblestoned lanes around Manger Square, the site that Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus.

For the first time in 18 months of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, combat raged in the very heart of Bethlehem, a crossroads of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths. The bloodshed spilled into the sanctuaries: Dozens of Palestinian gunmen holed up in the 4th century Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world, and other houses of worship.

The soundtrack was an unseasonable but appropriately violent thunderstorm that, along with the shooting, continued into the night.

"The war and the weather," muttered Maher, one of the few Palestinians in the outlying neighborhood of Beit Jala to venture into the streets. He peered into the mist through the windshield of his aging sedan as gunfire rattled on the hillsides. "The war and the weather."

Fog obscured the battlefield and, as often happens in this part of the world, the facts. The Israel Defense Forces said 10 Palestinian gunmen barricaded inside Santa Maria Church in central Bethlehem were holding a priest and nuns hostage and firing on troops outside.

Palestinians, however, said the clerics, a mix of Palestinians, Europeans and other nationalities, stayed in the church voluntarily to protect the fighters.

Similarly, the governor of Bethlehem disputed reports that Palestinian Authority fighters, mostly uniformed members of President Yasser Arafat's security forces, shot their way into the Church of the Nativity. He insisted that the fighters, dragging their wounded with them, took refuge there when they ran out of ammunition.

"The nuns have been giving first aid to the injured," Mohammed Madani, the governor, said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location where he was lying low. "The priests are giving them food."

Shortly before midnight Tuesday, witnesses reported that Israeli tanks massed in Manger Square and that soldiers with loudspeakers were ordering those inside the Church of the Nativity to surrender. Palestinian sources estimated that 150 people were inside the historic church, built over a grotto that Christians believe to be the site of the biblical manger, and that 120 more were in a nearby church.

But it was difficult to confirm numbers or to separate reality from rumor, as demonstrated by a confused and potentially inflammatory episode. Around midday, Palestinian and European officials and journalists claimed that Israeli soldiers had burst into a church and killed a priest, identified by various names and described alternately as Italian, French, Palestinian and American. One version had the supposed victim slain while saying Mass.

The "news" caused international consternation until the Vatican hastily announced that the priest was alive and well. In fact, Israeli officials said, their soldiers had taken great care to refrain from firing on or damaging holy sites despite the presence inside of Palestinian snipers. The erroneous report was an example of Palestinians demonizing Israelis, the military officials said.

"It's a lie," said an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, who asked not to be identified. "Not one nun or priest has been wounded. What are they going to come up with next?"

Bethlehem is about a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, where foot and vehicle traffic was sparse Tuesday because of the Passover holiday and the danger posed by suicide bombers. As attacks around Israel have produced daily death counts, residents of Jerusalem are staying away from malls, cafes and other public places.

In Bethlehem and surrounding communities, the streets were even more desolate. Maher and other residents of Beit Jala, a predominantly Palestinian Christian enclave, hunkered down with their families and turned on Arab-language television, which mixed news updates with political sloganeering.

Palestinians in the area said they feared that they would be shot by the Israeli military if they set foot outside. From weather-beaten cement houses and sand-colored high-rises, they surveyed a bleak skyline that juxtaposes historic towers with the unfinished hulk of a shopping center, a project that ground to a halt as the hostilities increased in recent months.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|