In Bethlehem, a test of peace

SUN JOURNAL

Calm: In a city long ruled by militants, eager residents and a Palestinian police chief show that peace is possible.

October 09, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT JALA, West Bank - It happened on a quiet weekday evening. Two masked Palestinians jumped from a stolen car, took cover in an olive grove and fired shots across the valley at apartments in a Jerusalem neighborhood.

This used to be an everyday occurrence. But a strange thing happened on this recent night in this village near Bethlehem. Palestinians upset with the shooting picked up the phone and called police. And Palestinian police actually responded and arrested the gunmen.

The quick action not only prevented yet another retaliation by the Israeli army, it offered evidence of a change of heart in a city long ruled by militants.

And it stands in dramatic contrast to the volatile circumstances in the Gaza Strip, where the Israeli army raided a militant stronghold on Sunday, killing 14 Palestinians and wounding more than 100 after repeated attacks on Jewish settlements.

"It is in our interests to stop the shooting," said Brig. Gen. Ala al-Deen Husni Rabae'a, the Bethlehem district police chief, whose jurisdiction includes neighboring Beit Jala. "We don't want to give Israel any excuse to come back here. We are respecting our own society by keeping law and order."

The Israeli army had pulled out of Bethlehem and nearby villages in August to give local Palestinian authorities a chance to restore order and dismantle militant groups. It originally planned to do the same in Gaza.

Schools and shops around Bethlehem reopened, and people went back to work.

Eager as people were to return to normal life, that was only one reason for the about-face. Repeated operations by the Israeli army have all but wiped out the militias and their leaders. And those leaders have often been replaced by moderates who hold the conviction that two years of fighting the Middle East's most powerful army has failed.

Bethlehem's residents, eager to reclaim their city and driven by its status as a Christian pilgrimage site, had another incentive to keep the peace - the hope that tourists will return and spend money.

At the same time, the Palestinian police force has been recruiting from outside the area, hiring officers who may be more immune to local pressures.

"They have come to realize that where there is quiet, we will relieve many measures," said Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli army spokesman. "The local leaders know that if they can rein in the militants, they can return to a quiet and normal life. Bethlehem is a positive development."

For Israel, Bethlehem and its villages were a test case. If the cease-fire held here, the Israeli army had promised to pull out of other Palestinian cities it has occupied since June.

Gaza was to be the next city on the list, but Israel said there was no indication the violence there would stop. No further withdrawals were implemented, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office declared the "Gaza-Bethlehem First" plan a failure.

The Israeli military has conceded, however, that Bethlehem has remained peaceful. Now, Rafowicz said, commanders are bypassing the Palestinian leadership and appealing directly to city officials.

And so the streets remain quiet. And what is most amazing is that the quiet has lasted this long, even as violence revisited the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian militias that ruled here were known for strong-arming merchants and cabdrivers for protection money. They used the governor's office as a base, executed with impunity those suspected of collaborating with Israel and hung the bodies in Manger Square.

Now, Palestinian police maintain posts throughout the city and no longer tolerate civilians carrying weapons.

The days are gone when leading gunmen held court outside the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, a cup of coffee and an assault rifle sharing a tabletop. The militias have gone underground, hiding not only from the Israeli army, but from the Palestinian police.

"I'm not denying that we have two points of view right now in Palestinian society," the police chief, Rabae'a, said during an interview in his Bethlehem office. "But here, we know that seeking change through violence will not work. The only solution is to talk."

Rabae'a acknowledged that the Israeli army killed, arrested or exiled most of the top militants in Bethlehem, and said that those not caught up in the sweeps are unorganized and leaderless.

"But there are still hundreds left who have guns," he said. "If it wasn't for my police force, things would be different here. There is still tension, but we are at a different stage of the conflict right now."

In contrast, in Gaza a Palestinian Authority police chief was killed Monday, apparently by militants determined to keep up the battle with Israel.

The residents of Beit Jala welcome the respite. This is a tiny village with homes built on the edge of a steep valley. Gunmen have used their front yards, taking cover in gardens and behind trees, to shoot at Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood in the West Bank, on the other side of the valley.

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