day ordeal of 50 children and Christian aid workers trapped inside a Lutheran-run orphanage. In the first hours of the raid on Beit Jala, the longest incursion yet by Israel into Palestinian-controlled territory, Israeli troops took over a Lutheran church compound that included an orphanage known as the Evangelical Lutheran Home, after reportedly banging on doors demanding entry.
Israeli soldiers turned the church premises into military outposts Tuesday, August 28, setting up firing positions on the top floor of a building in the Lutheran complex, staff members said. "We tried to ask the soldiers’ permission to leave to get some supplies, but they wouldn’t let us," Khaled Musalem, director of the orphanage, told journalists.
The children, half of them Christian, half Muslim, were apparently sustaining themselves with rice and beans, although other reports suggested that the army had allowed three days of food supplies
Amid protests from the church, that included a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and criticism from the United States President George Bush’s administration, the army withdrew from the Lutheran compound early Wednesday.
But Israel’s troops still controlled the nearby streets of this small town of an estimated 10.000 people, till they left early Thursday following a cease fire agreement struck between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Eyewitnesses said it took only 20 minutes for Israeli troops, tanks, armored personal carriers and other ground support units to roll out of the area. Despite the withdrawal there were indications however that the children of the orphanage were still traumatized, following a 50-hour stand off that involved exchanges of gunfire between Israeli and Palestinian gunmen.
One of the children in the orphanage made clear he was scared but passing the time playing and watching television. "Every time there’s more shooting, we stop playing," said 10-year old boy Milad Zaidalah, in a telephone interview. "At the beginning, the younger kids cried, but we managed to calm them down," Director Musalem explained. He accused the Israeli army of using the children, aged four till 18, as "human shields".
The Israeli Government was quick to deny the charges, saying that the occupation of Beit Jala was necessary to prevent Palestinian attacks against the adjacent Gilo, a Jewish community of about 45.000 people. However the Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem, Munib A. Younan, has said that "no shooting has taken place, neither yesterday nor in the past, from our church buildings in Beit Jala."
There seems to be concern among church officials that the Christian community will become a new target in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.