Death comes to Manger Square

Pope mourns violence, killing of Palestinian teen amid Israeli offensive

October 22, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- A day after Johnny Yousef Thalgieh was shot and killed, apparently by the Israeli army, his blood still stained Manger Square.

It was preserved yesterday as a memorial, encircled by blue police gates and chunks of broken limestone. It is a stark remembrance of the tall, skinny 17-year-old, who wanted to become a priest and died from a bullet to the heart a few steps from the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest shrines in Christendom.

Members of Thalgieh's family mourned in their home yesterday, yards from the square, on a street whose Arabic name is translated "water from the well." The wooden lid of the coffin, adorned with a simple white cross, was propped inside their front door.

"There is a God, and God is stronger than anyone else," said Thalgieh's cousin and close friend Amil Ghatas, 19, who says he is confident of a Palestinian victory over the Israelis. "But right now, no place is safe, not even the place where Jesus was born."

Day 4 of Israel's military occupation of parts of Bethlehem and seven other Palestinian towns and cities across the West Bank brought more gunfire yesterday and a mounting Palestinian death toll, which stood at 23 since Thursday.

Both sides have dug in for what appears to be a long incursion, sparked by the assassination last week of Israeli Cabinet member Rehavim Zeevi. The operation has become the most sweeping Israeli offensive against the Palestinians since they gained autonomy with the Oslo peace accords in 1993.

Israeli officials, from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the army's chief of staff, stop short of calling this a war, and they repeated yesterday that their only goal is to stop terrorism and force the Palestinians to turn over Zeevi's killers.

But Palestinians and left-wing Israeli leaders say that Sharon has unleashed his armed forces to topple the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat, using the American war against the Taliban in Afghanistan as a guide.

"This is a real war," said Bethlehem Mayor Hanna J. Nasser, who blamed the deteriorating situation on the Israelis, saying they resumed assassinating militants last week just as peace negotiations appeared close.

"We are interested in a cease-fire," said Nasser, whose news conference was often interrupted by the sound of machine gun fire near the municipal building. "We did the best we could to keep violence down, but the Israelis made it impossible for us not to respond to their aggression."

Nasser has appealed for international intervention through letters and 107 phone calls to everyone from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to the Vatican. "We want the Israelis out of our holy city," he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in Washington for talks with Bush administration officials, assured Arafat yesterday that Israel had no intention of remaining in areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli army said yesterday that it will withdraw its troops when the threat of terrorism is over, Palestinian militants are disarmed and Zeevi's killers from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are in Israeli prisons.

The conflict in the Middle East may not be a declared war, but to all appearances it is one. Military briefings include detailed maps showing Israeli positions in Palestinian hotels, police stations and private homes. The forces include more than 50 tanks, as well as armored personnel carriers, paratroopers, helicopter gunships, armed bulldozers, engineering corps and special forces units.

Troops have ventured deep into Palestinian cities, taking over the central square of Beit Jala, parking tanks in church courtyards, imposing curfews and spraying bullets from 50-caliber machine guns mounted atop armored vehicles.

Many of the Palestinians killed were armed militants trying to fight back. But the Palestinians count many civilians among the dead, including Thalgieh, a pregnant woman hit by a bullet while inside her home, a mother who ran from her car in the midst of a gunbattle and a 12-year-old girl struck down inside a school.

Three people were killed in or near Bethlehem yesterday afternoon, including a young man at Rachel's Tomb and a man in neighboring Beit Jala. In an apparent act of desperation, a young man stood in front of a tank at a Bethlehem refugee camp, threw an explosive device at it, and then was shot and killed. A fourth person, a 10-year-old girl, was shot to death in her home in the village of Sanoor, near Jenin.

At the Vatican yesterday, Pope John Paul II expressed sorrow over the situation and singled out Thalgieh's killing.

"War and death arrived even on the square of the Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord," the pope said during his noon prayer. "Violence is for everybody only a path of death and destruction, which dishonors the holiness of God and the dignity of man."

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