peacetalks Saturday, October 27, raised hope for Christian residents, who are trapped in church compounds and homes. Israeli and Palestinian commanders met in the birthplace of Jesus to co-ordinate plans by Israel to withdraw its troops from Bethlehem and nearby Beit Jalla.
Bowing to international pressure particularly from the United States, Israel agreed to the pull-out as a test for withdrawals from other West Bank towns it entered earlier this month, in search of what officials described as "Palestinian extremists." Israel’s incursions began October 18, following the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi a day earlier, for which the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed responsibility.
But the Israeli actions, which killed at least 37 Palestinians, failed to net all of the suspects and angered US President George W. Bush’s administration, as it needs support among Arab nations for the American led war against terrorism. It was not immediately clear when the pull out would begin amidst new exchanges of gunfire, but for Christians living in the Bethlehem area, it could not come soon enough.
CHRISTIANS IN CROSSFIRE
"Various (Israeli) tanks have been coming and going and stopping in front of the college", said Alistair Sanders, a British teacher at the Bethlehem Bible College, who has been living through days of heavy fighting. In an e-mail message obtained by BosNewsLife. Sanders reported that he and his colleagues have been trapped in the building, as the Israeli army was "shooting hundreds of bullets into the refugee camp across the road."
He could see "three serious fires, two buildings opposite us and the building right next door were burned, most probably as bullets hit gas tanks in the kitchens. On Friday Israeli soldiers took up position in a deserted building diagonally across the street from us. We saw them knocking holes in the walls and shooting down into the camp from their seventh-floor vantage point."
Sanders noted that "some Palestinians have been shooting back and throwing petrol-bombs – even throwing stones – with no discernible effect." He added that the college "has received minor damage from stray bullets that have broken a few windows and chipped the stonework in places."
Sanders described the fighting as "very loud with all the gunfire, but the last two nights we were able to sleep peacefully." He said the staff was "unable to leave the college buildings, or rather we are advised against it," and that they have been "very cautious" with their food supplies.
Sanders: "The shops are closed and there is hardly anyone on the streets – only tanks and the occasional ambulance. We are having to be very cautious with our limited supply of food – normally the weekend is when we go shopping and get fresh fruit and vegetables and things, but obviously we have not been able to do that. Even if we did go out we wouldn’t find a shop that was open."
PASTOR SEEKS REFUGE
Earlier this week Religion News Service reported that the Evangelical Lutheran Church pastor of the nearby small town of Beit Jallah, Jadallah Shehadeh, had been forced to flee his parsonage because of Israeli shelling in the area. Shehadeh has been taking refuge in the walled church compound, which also houses a school for boys. About 60 people, including the pupils and educators are said to be inside the complex, as tanks enter the town.
His church and school compound found itself on the front line of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militias after it was occupied by Israeli soldiers during a brief Israeli incursion into Beit Jallah in mid-September. Shehadeh accused the Israeli army of provoking the latest outbreak of fighting, which he claims even resulted in three mortar shells hitting the church.
However the Israeli Government has strongly denied it is responsible for the escalation of the conflict, saying that the latest military actions are in response to Palestinian terrorist attacks. Jerusalem’s leading Catholic and Orthodox church leaders have been organising a peace march from Jerusalem toward Bethlehem as part of an appeal on Israel to withdraw from the area.
CHRISTIAN BOY KILLED
They were hope that their action will end incidents, such as the killing of an 18-year old Christian boy on Saturday October 20 in the area. "We were standing on Nativity Square and he was shot right in front of me," Religion News Service quoted Catholic Priest Ibrahim Faltas, responsible for St Catherine’s Church Catholic rituals inside Nativity Church, as saying.
For many Palestinian residents today, the memories of millennium-era renovations and celebrations in the city now seem like a distant dream, Religion News Service reported. Garbage, broken glass and shells litter main streets that were paved and cleaned especially for Pope John Paul II’s triumphal visit to the region in March, 2000.
"Bethlehem is depressing, there is no memory of what took place a few months ago," said Najwa Raheb, wife of the Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Bethlehem’s Lutheran church, which stands only a few hundred meters from Manger Square. "Bethlehem is not the same."
However Bethlehem Bible College teacher Sanders told BosNewsLife that he and his three co-workers in the college guesthouse have agreed to stay. "We continue to rejoice in God’s protection and His provision."
At the same time Christian aid workers in other area’s are expected to face a difficult time ahead as Israeli officials stressed that Palestinians must enforce "a full cease-fire and arrest militants" before Israel withdraws from Jenin, Qalqilya, Ramallah and Tulkarem.
But the Associated Press quoted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as saying Saturday he would wait and see if the Israelis kept their part of the agreement, apparently before making any commitment himself. According to latest figures released Saturday, October 7, 727 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 186 on the Israeli side since fighting erupted more than a year ago.