Bethlehem cowers amid state of siege

Conflict: A city waits in fear as a standoff between Israelis and Palestinians drags on in Manger Square.

April 04, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - They crept along a stone pavement drenched by broken water mains and littered with spent shell casings and crushed cars, walking away from Christianity's cradle on a street named after Pope Paul VI.

Sabri Balboul's family was clearly terrified, making a break for it yesterday after being on the wrong side of town Monday. They were caught there after the Israeli army moved into the city as part of its operation to overwhelm Palestinian militias and put a stop to terrorist attacks.

The old man, four women - one heavily pregnant - and four children were among the few signs of life yesterday in a city that looked like a ghost town.

From a rooftop vantage point yesterday, four Israeli tanks and six armored personnel carriers could be seen on a road leading to Manger Square. There, Israeli forces were in a standoff with about 200 armed Palestinian police and militia, who had broken into the Church of the Nativity, built over the cave where Christians believe Jesus was born.

As the standoff dragged on, the city waited, silence shattered by the clash of automatic weapons.

At the hospital in the neighboring Palestinian town of Beit Jala, staff members wandered the halls during the early afternoon with little to do, though later they received two wounded people. The four beds in the emergency room were empty. The logbook, usually filled with up to 100 entries a day, had only one - a case of flu.

Peter Qumri, the hospital's director, smoked a cigarette, watched the news on television, and waited in a chair beneath a picture of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"The Israelis are squeezing the area now," he said.

Israeli snipers were taking up positions on rooftops, Qumri said, tightening their hold on Bethlehem.

He described phone calls received early Tuesday from those tending to a man struggling with a gunshot wound. The patient could not get to the hospital.

The calls came every 30 minutes. Efforts to stop the bleeding failing. The man's skin grew pale, Qumri said, and nothing more could be done.

Qumri appeared tense as he discussed the past 24 hours, his concentration breaking momentarily when he received a phone call from a television station.

The caller was checking on reports that Qumri had been killed. The doctor was very much alive.

"A new life," he said, a smile flashing on his face.

In the lobby, ambulance driver Taysir Bahloul milled around with the others, in virtual lockdown. He denied the Israeli authorities' repeated charge that the Palestinians use ambulances to move gunmen and smuggle weapons.

"This is absolute nonsense," he said. "We are here to help people."

Outside, there were few people to be seen. A walk toward Manger Square was like a walk into a haunted house of war, each corner filled with a discordant sight.

On one, a man raced into the street shortly after an Israeli armored vehicle drove past and rooted through a metal box that had fallen off the back of the truck.

He collected a belt of large-caliber bullets, draped them over his shoulders, jumped into a car and raced away smiling.

The shops on Pope Paul VI Street were closed, steel shutters plastered with posters recalling Palestinian fighters and "martyrs" killed during the 18-month conflict.

One coffeehouse was left without shutters. Inside, a dozen plastic seats and tables were scattered. Cups were piled in a sink. On a ledge was a picture clipped from a newspaper of a bridal party, the bride surrounded by gunmen.

The hands of the clock had stopped at the Lutheran church. A statue lay smashed on a median out front. A half-dozen cars were crushed, apparently by tanks.

A man and two children darted into the street, saw an unexploded rocket lodged in the wall of a building, and sprinted away.

A crack of gunfire, and it was time to retreat. But others couldn't do so.

At Bethlehem University, 12 Christian Brothers, including eight Americans, were confined to their residence as the Israeli army occupied the campus.

Israeli forces were using the campus as the headquarters for their operation in Bethlehem, according to Brother Dominic Smith, 60, of Hanover, Pa., who said armored personnel carriers were parked on the basketball court.

In a telephone interview, Smith said 100 Israeli soldiers arrived around 4 a.m. Tuesday. Shots were fired through a glass door and into the residence hall where the brothers were staying.

"We were in the house and the bullets came in," he said. "It was a very terrifying moment."

Brother Vincent Malham, 67, of St. Louis, who heads the university of some 2,200 students, said he has been in constant contact with the Israeli commander on the scene.

He said the Israelis had been "decent" to the staff and allowed the university's chaplain to enter the compound for evening prayers. Malham was surprised at the number of shell casings that lay at the university's front gate.

"In one sense we're hostage," he said by phone. "They're trying to ensure our safety. I think they are sensitive to the Christian dimension. They don't want to be perceived as being insensitive to us."

Malham said he asked the Israeli commander two or three times how long the operation might last. He said he didn't get an answer.

"They may not even know how long themselves."

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