Ducking bullets at dinnertime in the West Bank

A war of the suburbs has erupted in two neighborhoods south of Jerusalem. From the largely Christian Palestinian town of Beit Jala, gunmen have sprayed machine-gun fire across a dry valley, aiming at Jewish homes in the suburb of Gilo just 500 yards away. Israeli tanks have shot back with heavy machine guns and cannons. It is a conflict in which the militant are surrounded by the innocent.

When the shooting started again Monday night in Beit Jala, it was almost too much for Lina George Nazzal.

She had spent the day helping her Palestinian family recover from the arrival of an unexpected visitor the night before - an Israeli tank shell. The munition blasted through the exterior wall of the house, passed over the beds of Ms. Nazzal's niece and nephew, and exploded, punching soccer-ball sized holes in one wall and mangling the washing machine in the laundry room.

Nazzal's brother and his wife had hustled the children from the bedroom just minutes earlier. That foresight, Nazzal says, is attributable to Jesus. Without it, the current Palestinian uprising might have claimed a toddler and a preschooler as "martyrs."

* * *

In the Jewish suburb of Gilo, Aryeh Hafsadi slouching on his living room sofa in his purple tracksuit pants and a dark blue bathrobe, is waxing philosophical about the gunfire rattling outside his window at suppertime, and the bullets that wounded one of his upstairs neighbors.

"Since I was born, I have grown up with war," he shrugs, tightening his bathrobe belt across his large stomach. "What can I tell you? It's in my life."

Over the darkened street from Mr. Hafsadi's ground-floor apartment, an Israeli tank is blasting occasional cannon fire across the valley toward Beit Jala, at positions where Palestinian gunmen are suspected of hiding. But Hafsadi is not going to bother to venture out into the blustery wet night to watch. Last night, he slept through the din. Tonight, he will see as much of the action as he cares to on Israeli television. The crew is broadcasting live from his front porch.

Mrs. Hafsadi, her head wrapped in a kerchief, is bustling in the kitchen, making mint tea for the soldiers outside. They are huddled behind a makeshift wall of concrete slabs erected on a sandbank that shields the lower floors of apartment blocks on Ha'anafa Street, which runs along an exposed hillside overlooking Beit Jala.

* * *

Beit Jala is a largely Palestinian-Christian community abutting Bethlehem. Upstairs, in another part of this multifamily dwelling, Nazzal's parents have decorated their middle-class home with a tapestry of the Last Supper. Israeli soldiers have also contributed to the decor: a bullet is wedged into a cupboard in the living room.

The Israeli response is aimed partly at the gunmen and partly at Beit Jala as a whole, to punish the community.

"They want us to leave, to go away from here," says Nazzal, a pharmacist who studied in Spain. Indeed, Israel has warned Beit Jala residents to vacate their homes for their own safety, but the Palestinians are staying. They are no doubt mindful of their history, in which those who have left their property have lost it.

* * *

The Israeli soldiers outside Hafsadi's Gilo apartment are there "for the civilians, to offer moral support," says one conscript who won't give his name, "and to protect the journalists, to stop them jumping down the mountain and getting too close." There are indeed more camera crews and photographers lined up along the street than there are soldiers.

From inside the conscript's flak jacket, his cellphone trills. A friend calling, to see where he is. "I get calls from my friends, from my family, everyone," he smiles. "If this were the front line of a war, I wouldn't be allowed the phone, but here.... "The Arabs just want to protest," he says of the gunmen across the valley. "They shoot in the air wildly, they can't see where they are shooting."

* * *

Nazzal says she believed in peace until the Israeli tank shell hit her family's home. Now she is upset and she speaks in a rush. "This is our land and we have a right to live here and Jews don't and we say we wanted peace and look what has happened?" she asks. She brushes her bangs away from tired eyes.

"This is not the way," she says of Israel's tactics. Nazzal says the Israelis "are killing people who have nothing to do with shooting or the intifadah. We live in peace here." So far, Israeli retaliation in Beit Jala has caused no deaths.

A minute or two after the words are uttered, a long burst of machine-gun fire interrupts the silence of Beit Jala's shuttered, empty streets. It is impossible to tell whether the shooting is from Beit Jala or Gilo.

"Oh no," says Nazzal, raising her hands to her face and beginning to cry. She darts out of her brother's apartment and runs up to say goodbye to her parents. Then an acquaintance jogs with her across the street - shielding her with his body as they cross the line of fire - so she can get into her brother's car to go home.

* * *

In Gilo, 16 homes were hit on Tuesday night with bullets going through bedroom windows of Jewish homes (built on land seized by the Israelis in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict). The people who live Ha'anafa Street are scared. "I feel very odd, I'm not used to this, and it's a little frightening," admits Daphna Adoni, a travel agent who lives upstairs from the Hafsadi's apartment.

She has just returned from work, but has stayed downstairs to be with her neighbors on the porch. "I'm a little less scared down here than I would be on my own in my apartment," she says.

Still, she is turning down relatives who call her repeatedly on her cellphone to suggest she come and stay the night with them in quieter parts of Jerusalem.

Nor are many of her neighbors going anywhere. "I say this land belongs to me," insists Hafsadi. "My people were here before them [Palestinians]. Just live and let live, everybody on his side."

* * *

A few blocks from the Nazzal's home, Ibrahim Budir and a few co-workers are gathered in the sweetshop he runs, one of the very few open storefronts in Beit Jala or Bethlehem.

Business, of course, is lousy. Thanks to an Israeli closure of Beit Jala, Palestinians cannot go to their jobs, meaning that their desire to spend money on sweets evaporates. And the violence keeps people at home.

"The occupation destroys us," he says, referring to the Israeli military and police presence around Bethlehem and Beit Jala, which are under Palestinian control.

At the front of the shop, a television is tuned to an Israeli channel whose newscasters are broadcasting live from the Gilo side. On TV, Mr. Budir watches the Israelis fire tank cannons, more or less in his direction.

Then he listens as the rounds reach their targets. The Nazzal home is just a short walk away.

The worst part, he says, is answering the questions of his three-year-old daughter, who wonders about the booms. "What can I tell her?" he asks. "That there is fighting between Jews and Palestinians? That there is bloodshed?" Instead, he tells her that the explosions are fireworks from a wedding celebration.

* * *

In Gilo, up the street from the Hafsadi's, on the other side of a police barrier, out of the line of fire, crowds of curious onlookers gather under the harsh orange glare of the streetlights. "I came because it's interesting, it's exciting and adventurous," giggles Oshrit Cohen, a teenage girl with a diamond nose-stud, only half ashamed to be a voyeur of violence. "I came to see if there would be shooting."

There is. And as bursts of machine gun fire rattle through the night, Oshrit does not need the policeman's orders to scuttle back another 20 yards to certain safety.

It is not just a fireworks show. Back on Ha'anafa Street, an Army jeep's radio crackles to life. A forward spotter, hiding somewhere down the hill with a night vision scope, reports seeing armed men in "building 337" in Beit Jala. The Israeli tank's engines grind, its cannon turns, and the ground shakes as it fires a shell towards Beit Jala.

Across the valley, in the harsh orange glare of the same streetlights that illuminate Gilo, a cloud of smoke and dust rises in the wind. A Palestinian house has been smashed.

Aryeh Hafsadi goes to bed.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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