This city has just seen two more twists given to the stark cycle of violence and retribution now gathering momentum in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.
The spreading tit-for-tat violence between Palestinians and Jews has grave implications for both sides. And the pace appears to be heating up, as the two latest incidents illustrate:
* Last week, Tigrid el Butmeh, a Palestinian Arab Chemistry student at Bethlehem University, was wounded in the neck when an Israeli policeman patrolling the campus area fired a burst from his machine gun. Israeli military spokesman say the burst was an accident, and the girl was hit by a ricochet. She was taken to Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital critically wounded and was not expected to survive.
* On June 22, an israeli foot soldier patrolling near the spot where she was hit was shot and seriously wounded by an unseen assailant.
"There is no doubt," says Bethlehem's Mayor Elias Freij, "that the attack on the soldier was inspired by reports about the girl's condition. I detest this cycle of violence. it is going to drag us all to our end."
While there is no proof that the incidents were connected, street talk in Bethlehem indicates that the local Arabs believe it was revenge. They also believe that the girl was shot deliberately, despite Israeli insistence to the contrary.
"Of course the shooting was deliberate," said one Bethlehem merchant emphatically. "This is their policy, the heavy hand," he added. He was referring to a new Israeli policy of severe measures to deter West Bank unrest that was instituted after six Jewish soldier-students were killed in the West Bank town of Hebron in early May.
The second Bethlehem incident has a peculiarly individual aspect to it, for if the incidents were related, the response took only five days. West Bank incidents involving shooting of soldiers are relatively rare, but the last two months have witnessed the Hebron killings, the shooting of a border policeman from the walls of Arab old Jerusalem, and now Bethlehem.
Townspeople are particularly upset about incidents involving patrols of israeli border police, including special tough units composed of some Jews but including many Druse and Bedouin (the latter two being Islamic minority religious and tribal groups respectively). They have a reputation of treating Palestinians harshly.
"They have been here since the Hebron killings," says Mayor Freij. "They harass the people, especially young girls, with bad language in Arabic. I have asked the [Israeli] military governor to take these border police patrols out of the West Bank."
The border policeman responsible for wounding Miss Butmeh is now under arrest.
The bitter mood is especially noticeable in Bethlehem, a prosperous, predominantly Christian town that is home to major Christian shrines, including the Church of the Nativity. Mayor Freij long has been regarded by Israelis as a moderate, and the twon is normally crowded with pilgrims, tourists, and Israeli shoppers.
"We used to have 1,000 Israelis shopping every Saturday, but since this violent cycle began we have almost none," says Mayor Freij.
Outside her hospital room, Miss Butmeh's family and friends sit huddled silently. "The doctor told me it is completely hopeless," says her father, Ismail Butmeh, a teacher in a refugee camp. "I studied together with my daughter couple they ever had. And now . . . ."
He believes the shooting was deliberate. "We are accustomed to this. It is our fate because we are occupied. The israelis are strong so they can kill anybody."
He shows emotion only when told that the injured soldier is in the same hospital. "We don't accept any killing, neither of Jews or of Arabs," he adds.
But Bethlehemites point out that "the biggest revenge hasn't even been taken yet," a reference to West Bank expectations that the Palestinian underground will avenge the recent unsolved car-bombings that maintained two West Bank Palestinian mayors.