West Bank villagers caught in crossfire

Israeli-Palestinian clashes outside Bethlehem, in the village Al-Khader and town of Beit Jala, are notable for the open confrontation that has taken place between the Israeli military and members of Palestinian security forces. To an unprecedented degree, uniformed troops from both sides have come into stark conflict. Israeli officials said their troops were ambushed at Al- Khader on Wednesday: the Palestinians said they were attempting to prevent Israelis from entering Palestinian-controlled territory. Two Israeli soldiers, a Palestinian policeman, and two Palestinian civilians were killed in the area Wednesday. Fighting resumed yesterday, killing another Palestinian. Here is how Wednesday's fighting affected several residents of the Palestinian village.

On Wednesday afternoon at about 3 o'clock, a refrigeration engineer named Rezeq Saeed took a risk that nearly killed him.

In the midst of fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian security forces in this hillside village just outside Bethlehem, Mr. Saeed and 14 members of his extended family - women and young children - squeezed themselves under the groundfloor stairway of their four-story apartment building. Outside there was a "rain of shooting" as Israeli forces fired from hilltop emplacements and helicopters.

Huddled under the stairs, the children crying with fear, Saeed says he didn't want to "wait for death." So he stepped outside the front door and dashed to the large white van he uses for work. His plan was to move the vehicle closer to the door so the family could get in.

He started the engine and backed up a few feet when he saw an Israeli helicopter overhead and changed his mind. He bolted out of the van and back into the house.

After what felt to Saeed like 20 seconds, a rocket smashed through one of the van's rear windows and exploded, punching a hole through the back door, blasting out several more windows, and perforating the rear of the vehicle with shrapnel.

Saeed and his family waited out the end of the fighting under the stairs.

Yesterday Saeed took reporters through his brother's apartment, where bullets and shrapnel have scarred the walls of the children's bedroom. His niece Rima used her six-year-old fingers to pick up small bits of jagged metal from the carpeting.

Two doors down, where Israeli missiles demolished and set alight two rooftop bedrooms, residents sit wanly in metal chairs and point out the destruction to visitors.

"It was like Beirut yesterday," Saeed says.

Jibril Hussain, a grandfather who wears the traditional Palestinian headscarf or kaffiyeh, spent Wednesday afternoon among his olive trees on the hill above Al-Khader. It is harvest time in the Holy Land and despite the danger of recent weeks, the fruit must be picked. "It is our life," he says.

Wednesday's trip to the orchard was nearly fatal for Mr. Hussain. He and his brother - two grandfathers who have seen decades of strife - were pinned down by Israeli fire for four hours.

Standing under a winter sun on a deserted Bethlehem street, Hussain's body shakes slightly and his eyes glisten as he relates the experience. With grizzled cheeks and a quavering voice, he rails at a question about an agreement reached between Israeli and Palestinian leaders early Thursday morning to reduce the violence. "What's the peace they are talking about?" he demands. "It's not a peace when we go to pick olives and they shoot at us."

Minutes earlier the same street had been filled with hundreds of men, two of them held aloft on funeral biers, moving in a procession toward a Bethlehem mosque. Both were Palestinians killed in Wednesday's fighting; one was a Palestinian policeman.

Judah Subir, another kaffiyeh-clad grandfather, sat on a low concrete wall to watch the crowd, resting his hands on a cane. Overnight agreements between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli officials can't put a quick end to the violence, he says. "These events are out of [Mr.] Arafat's hands," Mr. Subir explains. "The situation is out of control."

Fifth-grader Nadin Asi is young enough to wear a Winnie the Pooh headband and old enough to have seen several clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. On Wednesday afternoon she was riding in a taxi with other students, commuting home from the American school in the next-door town of Beit Jala, when she heard the gunfire and saw the helicopters.

The driver took her to an uncle's home and she returned to Al-Khader Wednesday evening to see the damage: the charred upper floor of one building, the damaged railing on another, chunks of masonry missing from walls and pavement.

On a neighbor's terrace, someone had hung a child's pink sleeper to dry in the sun. Now it has two holes, perfectly aligned, that mark the passage of a bullet.

"I couldn't sleep because I thought they were going to come back," Nadin says of the helicopters. "I've seen little incidents before, but they usually stop shooting right away. This time you could hear gunfire and huge explosions for like three hours. They did not want to stop."

Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.