fighting, Christians in Jesus birthplace are trying to leave their shelters, BosNewsLifele arned late Thursday, November 1.
In a statement the Bethlehem Bible College suggested that most of its staff and students were able to reach the complex after they "had been hunkered down inside" their homes since October 18.
The College reported that many people were "not daring to venture outside" during that period because of what it said were "numerous Israeli snipers positioned in high buildings" throughout Bethlehem.
Staff members claimed there had been a total of 22 tanks patrolling areas throughout Bethlehem and the nearby town of Beit Jalla. One of the tanks allegedly parked "at the front gate" of the Bethlehem Bible College "aiming its turret at the refugee camp across the street."
ISRAEL TO STAY
However the tanks finally withdrew, just before British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon began discussions on how to revive the peace process. "There are high and deep points, because this is a process," Blair told reporters in Jerusalem, Thursday November 1.
"It obviously has reached a low point," he said. But Blair stressed that "Israel will not disappear as some extremists want," and that the Palestinians and Israeli’s will have to learn to live together. But Christians in Bethlehem have suggested this will take time.
”People could finally return to their schools and their jobs and their daily routines, but not without giving sober consideration to the loss of life which was unbearable high," the Bethlehem Bible College added.
It said that 52 Palestinians were killed from October 18 till October 28, adding that 23 of these victims were in the Bethlehem district. Other sources had put the death-toll among Palestinians at 37.
"Four of these victims were Christians. Four were women, one of whom was pregnant and her baby died as well. In addition three were children under the age of 18. Another victim was deaf and one was preparing for his wedding celebration, scheduled for the same night of his death," the Bethlehem Bible College reported.
Staff members of the institute estimate that the vast majority of victims were civilians uninvolved in the fighting, and that over 30 Bethlehem-area children lost a parent. "For all these innocent victims, we pray for the Lord to comfort their bereaved families and to uplift them in their time of sorrow," they said in a statement.
Teacher Alistair Sanders told BosNewsLife earlier that the worst part of the experience was not fear for personal safety, but having to watch "helplessly as the (Israeli) soldiers obviously targeted the refugee camp across the street, spraying gunfire indiscriminately at the houses."
Although no staff member or student of Bethlehem Bible College was killed, Sander’s team added that a fourth-year student, lost his 19-year old cousin who was killed by a sniper "while standing near a window beside his father inside his house in Aida refugee camp."
Earlier this week Christians described how they witnessed 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.
ISRAEL DEFENDS ACTIONS
But the Israeli Government has denied its forces are deliberately targeting innocent civilians. Israeli officials said the incursions into Palestinian territories were in response to "Palestinian extremists" including suicide bombers, who have killed dozens of Jewish people, including children and infants, in recent months.
The total amount of property damage in Bethlehem has reportedly been estimated at 17 million dollars, although officials have not yet been able to fully determine how many homes were damaged.
There was apparently also destruction in two of the town’s main hospitals as well as the campus of Bethlehem University, and two major hotels, one of which was reportedly completely destroyed.
Despite its location, the Bethlehem Bible College said it had sustained "surprisingly little damage" considering the proximity of the exchanges between Israeli and Palestinian gunmen. It said 8 windows were smashed, one window frame splintered and that the wall plaster in two rooms "was sprayed with gunfire or shrapnel."
In addition staff members said that the van’s rear windshield was shattered, that one rooftop water tank "was punctured by bullet holes" and that "brass gas lines providing gas for the guesthouse kitchen" were severed. "However, the damage was minimal relative to the rest of the town."
The Bethlehem Bible College has urged Christians around the world not to forget their Palestinian brothers and sisters who it believes are preparing for a painful Christmas. "In four weeks, the season of Advent will be upon us. Last year at this time, the Bethlehem was under economic siege and its Christians were suffering from the lack of pilgrims, and a lack of income food to feed their families," staff members said.
"This year, Jesus’ birthplace has endured a ferocious state of literal military siege. We will not celebrate our Savior’s birth without remembering all those who died…" More than 900 people, most of them Palestinians, are believed to have been killed since large scale fighting erupted again, more than a year ago.