After the battle, ruin and rage

Israeli withdrawal leaves Bethlehem a wreck, but glad that fighting's over

October 30, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - This city needed help springing back to life yesterday.

Residents emerged from bullet-riddled buildings and fire-scarred homes to begin rebuilding, but it will not be an easy task. Israeli tanks had rumbled out of Manger Square after fierce gunbattles with Palestinians and a siege of the town, but the fighting left unmistakable marks.

Streets are gouged by the tanks and blocked by toppled light poles, downed power lines, uncollected trash and piles of rubble. Crumpled cars litter roadsides.

Faten Shamsyeh, nine months' pregnant with her first baby, had huddled in her home during the fighting, worried that she would go into labor and be unable to get to a hospital. Her pains began Sunday, the first day a cease-fire held, and so her husband maneuvered around tanks parked at the entrance to Holy Land Hospital, where she gave birth to a healthy boy. The day-old infant was secure in his crib yesterday, moved out of the maternity ward because bullets had shattered a window.

"His coming is a good sign," said Shamsyeh, 20, as relatives gathered around. "The day he came, the Israelis left the city."

Another infant, born prematurely in a car barred by Israeli soldiers from passing through a checkpoint, died upon reaching Holy Land Hospital.

The mood in Bethlehem was of silent rage. There was no celebration of the Israeli withdrawal, only relief that the shooting had ended.

Hammers pounded in every street. There were windows to be replaced, bullet holes to be covered and phone lines to be strung. The hottest-selling items at the hardware store were metal patches for punctured water tanks.

Israeli officials had moved their forces into Bethlehem to keep Palestinian militants from shooting at soldiers who had taken over the neighboring village of Beit Jala. Israeli troops had occupied that town to prevent Palestinian gunmen from shooting across the valley at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

And so Bethlehem, which had been largely immune from the fighting that scarred other West Bank cities during the 13-month Palestinian uprising, became the most intense urban battleground on the West Bank. In all, 22 people were killed and dozens wounded in gunfights that lasted night and day.

Most of the dead were Palestinian gunmen, but four were civilians who wandered into the path of bullets. An altar boy was killed in Manger Square. A mother was shot while running from a taxi. A pregnant woman was struck as she stood in her kitchen.

Day after day, Palestinian gunmen darted through alleys and refugee camps to shoot at Israeli tanks near Manger Square and at snipers crouched in hotel rooms overlooking the city.

Israeli soldiers answered fire from World War II-vintage Kalashnikov rifles with tank-mounted machine guns and tank shells. The firing was so intense it punctured cinder-block walls of houses with holes the size of golf balls.

Several homes in the Azza refugee camp caught fire and burned until the flames died on their own. Most severely hit were houses facing the Paradise Hotel, which was commandeered by Israeli snipers and firebombed twice by Palestinians.

Jabril Sammy Imrizeq, 27, lived on the third floor of his family home with his wife and four children. Now he has nothing left: Bullets tore through his walls, ripped through his dresser and shredded his clothes. Then his house caught fire.

Imrizeq is a day laborer, with no money and no insurance. The United Nations, which runs the refugee camp, was of little help.

"They offered me a tent," Imrizeq said, shaking his head as he stood amid the still-smoldering, blackened walls of his home.

Few buildings in Bethlehem were left unscarred. The Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest shrines in Christendom, was hit by gunfire, along with hospitals, schools, orphanages and mosques. At Bethlehem University, only the library was spared. Sixty-six windows were broken at the Vatican-sponsored school.

Palestinian police blanketed Bethlehem yesterday to keep militants from breaking the cease-fire. They succeeded, but residents were seething as they went about repairs.

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