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The Bloody Battle of Bethlehem


Jerusalem: Rotting bodies in Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers surrounding Palestinian civilians and militiamen in the place of Christ’s birth, unburied corpses in Ramallah – Israel’s latest war is turning into a human and political tragedy on a vast scale as the last physical symbols of the Oslo peace agreement are destroyed.

For two days, the suicide bombers have been silent. But the coming weeks will decide the future of the Holy Land for years to come.

If the Church of the Nativity is now a battleground, what is sacred any longer? The details are as indistinct as the smoke that still rises close to Manger Square, but Christian officials speak of at least 100 Palestinian civilians seeking the sanctuary of the church that marks the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born in a stable.

With them, it seems, are at least 10 Palestinian militiamen from the Tanzim movement. The Israeli army has surrounded the church with tanks. According to the Israelis, the Tanzim men have opened fire on the occupying soldiers. The Palestinians denied it.

But no one can deny the carnage elsewhere. Take the phone call I received from Sami Abda yesterday afternoon. On Tuesday, he told me, Israeli soldiers arrived at his house in the centre of Bethlehem and, despite being warned by a neighbour that his home was filled with women and children, opened fire on the building. The Israelis claimed that “terrorists” were in the house.

Sami Abda was crying as he spoke to me and these are his exact words: “They fired 18 bullets through our front door. They hit my mother, Sumaya, and my brother Jacoub. My mother was 64, my brother was 37. They both fell to the floor. I called everyone I could to take them to the hospital. But there was no one to help us. They were dying. When an ambulance came, an Israeli officer refused permission for it to enter our street. So for 30 hours, we have lived with their bodies. We put the children into the bathroom so they could not see the corpses. Help us, please.”

But that insistent question – What is sacred? – could be asked again by anyone who read The Jerusalem Post this week: a whole page of tiny photographs of the dozens of Israeli civilians torn to pieces by Palestinian suicide bombers in just one month. One teenage Israeli girl was the same age as the Palestinian girl who destroyed her life. It was a page of horror and misery.

And, yes, war compounds human tragedy. Even as Sami Abda was trying to shield his own children from their grandmother’s and uncle’s blood, a young female doctor was shot dead inside her home in Jenin as 30 Israeli tanks smashed into the northern West Bank city to be met by fusillades of gunfire from Palestinians.

They invaded Salfat, too, and hundreds of tanks last night invaded the ancient city of Nablus, with its Palestinian Authority officers and kasbah of narrow streets.

In Ramallah, the hospital authorities – tired of waiting for Israeli permission to bury the dead – interred the corpses of 25 Palestinians that had been decaying in the mortuary for four days.

Palestinians are demanding an inquiry – there will be none, of course – into the killing of five policemen gunned down by Israeli soldiers in a tiny Ramallah room. A gun battle, said the Israelis. But the bullets that killed them all appeared to have been fired at close-range and at least two of the men were in their mid-50s.

More than 1,000 prisoners have now been taken away by the Israelis and, except for a dozen or so, no one knows where they have been taken or if they are alive. A group of several dozen were transported to a Jewish settlement before being taken away yet again.

So is the State of Israel crushing any hope of a state of Palestine? A tiny flower of hope came in the cold and rain at the Kalandia checkpoint outside Ramallah yesterday, when Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs and a few of the Western protesters, whose courage has gone sadly unrecognised, arrived to demand peace and an end to Israeli occupation.

There is life after war. But will there be a Palestine? Will the world, through this Israeli reoccupation, see Palestine as it saw Bosnia or Kosovo or East Timor?

Hanan Ashrawi, one of the few credible Palestinian figures, is also one of the few sane voices in the war. Exhausted, bags below her eyes, keeping herself awake with scalding coffee, she spoke to me with an air of resignation in Jerusalem.

“The Oslo agreement is being deconstructed, deliberately,” she said. “Sharon is being obsessively consistent. He always said he wanted the destruction of the Oslo agreement. This reoccupation was planned many months ago.

“But Sharon lacks the ability to assess the ramifications of his actions. His attempts to destroy Arafat have backfired. He has made Arafat more legitimate among Palestinians.

“Everyone – the left, the right, the centre, the radicals, the Islamists – have now rallied behind him. So don’t expect anyone to propose another Palestinian leader.”

Could this be true, that Yasser Arafat’s weakness is turning into his strength, that Ariel Sharon’s military power is turning into a weakness? For if the Israeli army is achieving the astonishing success it claims, why does it not want journalists to witness this great victory? As the Europeans, the UN Security Council and the Arab League were all deliberating on this turning point in Middle Eastern history, the world’s last colonial war – between a settlement-planting nation and an occupied people – was entering its gravest phase.

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