Kindergarten room becomes haven from intense gunbattles

Residents of West Bank ride out Israeli incursion

October 24, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Sharzhad Lazza's kindergarten is on the first floor of her house and is full of innocent things - toy trucks, puzzles and tins of chocolate cookies. Cardboard cutouts of Disney characters hang from the white walls.

The amusements became crucial commodities when the Israeli army roared into Bethlehem last week and engaged in fierce fighting with Palestinian gunmen, turning the city into a battleground. Lazza, her husband and six children took refuge in the school, which seemed safer than their living quarters upstairs.

The toys kept the children occupied as tank shells pounded the streets outside. Cookies became dinner. The only way back upstairs to the refrigerator was outside steps, making the trip too dangerous. The Aza refugee camp, where the family lives, on a narrow street across from the Paradise Hotel, was under fire hour after hour.

Electricity was cut off. So was the water, when firing hit the water pipes. Telephone service was knocked out.

"We saw the tanks coming, but we never thought it was going to be such a massive invasion," said Lazza, a 38-year-old who was born, schooled and married in the refugee camp for Palestinians displaced in Israeli's 1948 war of independence. "The gun battles were so loud, you couldn't talk."

The Lazza family's experiences are like those of hundreds of other families across the West Bank, as the Israeli army maintains its hold on Palestinian cities and towns for a sixth day, in the most sweeping military offensive in years.

Families in Nablus and Jenin in the north, to the biblical villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour in the south, are blockaded by Israel as a result of last week's assassination of Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi in an East Jerusalem hotel.

Across the area, Palestinian gunmen, often in pairs, roam the streets and fire on Israeli tanks and soldiers, who respond with heavy machine gunfire and tank shells that have claimed at least 25 lives, some of them children.

Schools and universities are shuttered. Hospitals have been strafed by gunfire. The Red Cross is complaining that efforts to get doctors, food and medical supplies into the besieged areas have been blocked. Red Cross officials said their intervention was necessary to get bread into Ramallah and to lift a curfew there for one hour to allow residents to shop.

Israel has so far rejected demands by the United States that it withdraw from the West Bank. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said this week that Israel will do so only when Zeevi's killers are captured or extradited and militant Palestinian groups are disarmed and crushed.

The Palestinians killed since the troops arrived include a 12-year-old girl apparently hit by gunfire inside a school in Nablus, a 10-year-old boy shot near Jenin, a pregnant woman killed in her home in Bethlehem, and a 17-year-old altar boy hit by a bullet while he stood in Manger Square.

Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, the Holy Family Hospital, a home for the elderly and a maternity ward and orphanage run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent have all been hit by gunfire, though it is hard to be certain who was shooting. At the orphanage, nuns said 60 youngsters were hustled to a basement during an overnight gunbattle.

Government spokesman Dan Seaman said that most resistance is coming from Palestinian militants, not from Palestinian police under direct control of Yasser Arafat. He said the military operation is aimed at finding Zeevi's killers and toppling militant groups that Arafat is either incapable of dismantling or unwilling to confront.

Israeli officials also have denied targeting civilians and said their soldiers are under strict orders not to fire in the direction of religious shrines. At the same time, they charged that Palestinian gunmen are shooting from church towers and mosques.

Yesterday, Christian and Muslim religious leaders led a march from Jerusalem to Manager Square in Bethlehem, calling for a cease-fire on both sides and for Israel to leave the city.

"The city of the Prince of Peace has become the city of war, and this is unacceptable," said the Rev. Raed A. Abusahlia, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem. "If you want to have peace in Israel, you have to have justice."

Papal Nuncio Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's representative to Israel, led the march, walking arm-in-arm with Shikh Riah Abu Assal, the activities director for the Waqf Trust, which oversees Muslim shrines and Islamic affairs in Jerusalem.

Hundreds of marchers followed them, including priests representing the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, through a military checkpoint, past Israeli soldiers who moved barricades to let them by, and over a street littered with empty shell casings from M-16 rifles, evidence of firefights of the night before.

An Israeli army commander asked Sambi to accept a military escort to Rachel's Tomb, a religious site at Bethlehem's northern entrance under Israeli control but frequently targeted by Palestinian gunmen.

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