Israeli occupation of Beit Jala turns into battle of wills

Messrs. Sharon and Arafat fear backing down would signal larger political setbacks.

For the few Palestinian children given candy Monday by Israeli troops invading the West Bank town of Beit Jala, the revival of Israel's military presence there had a sweet first taste. By yesterday, it had become bitter - not only for Beit Jala, but for Israel itself, as it emerged that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's latest escalation of the Middle East conflict lacks one crucial component: a clear exit strategy.

Last night there were unconfirmed reports of a truce agreement, whereby Israeli troops would depart if local gunmen held their fire for several hours.

At press time, the army remained ensconced in its new positions in this hilly, predominantly Christian town next to Bethlehem. The one place Israel had pulled its troops from was the downtown Lutheran church compound, after international criticism that the army had kept 45 children stranded in the basement of an orphanage there. The Israeli army spokesman said the children were unable to leave because it imposed a curfew to protect the civilians in the area.

Palestinian fighters near Beit Jala were still firing mortar bombs and bullets yesterday at the Jewish settlement of Gilo, whose safeguarding was the stated reason for the takeover of positions in Beit Jala. Militamen armed with assault rifles were seen talking to Palestinian policemen at a Beit Jala street corner.

The conflict is rapidly turning into a battle of wills between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Mr. Sharon. Each fears that any perceived weakness in Beit Jala could translate into a larger political and diplomatic setback.

Sharon has much at stake. He has Israelis that he would put an end to the sniping that has gone on for the last 11 months toward Gilo, which was built on occupied territory that Israel considers an integral part of its capital. Until Monday, the army had handled the sniping through devastating bombardments of Beit Jala that caused many residents to flee.

Israel, according to media reports, is now demanding that the Palestinian Authority (PA) stop the shooting and ensure that there be no more sniping before it pulls its troops out. The PA is insisting on an unconditional Israeli pullout, and the positioning of international monitors not only in Beit Jala but throughout the occupied territories, says local government minister Saeb Erekat. That could spell a protracted reoccupation or alternatively high-stakes diplomacy that could lead to greater international involvement here.

Early Tuesday morning, Israeli soldiers shattered the glass door of the Shahwan home, burst in, and ordered the 14 family members into a room. There, the family was kept for nearly 24 hours without food or supplies, says Katherine Shahwan, a family member. The troops riddled a car parked outside with bullets and shot at a window.

But inside, several of the soldiers were "nice and polite," Shawan said, and they gave out chewing gum to the children.

Yesterday, the Shahwans pondered the possibility that their uninvited Israeli guests, who moved early in the day to a new, more commanding position a few blocks away, might become permanent fixtures.

"This is an occupation," says Father George Shahwan, a Greek Orthodox priest and a relative of Katherine. "Occupation goes against everything God wants, for God is the father of freedom."

Other residents bitterly displayed bullet holes in their walls, windows, satellite dishes, and water tanks. "They started kicking our door, but we didn't open it," says Jad Rabi, a high school student. "They broke into the house above us. They broke all the mirrors and things - they destroyed it completely. They put the father and son against the wall and frisked them.... I don't know what to do. I feel afraid."

Israel's West Bank commander, Brig. Gen. Gershon Yitzhak, says his troops took great pains not to harm the civilians and to "display sensitivity to all the holy places."

"We didn't touch any holy places or go into any holy places," he says. The mosque next door to the Shahwan house had bullet holes in its windows, which Palestinian police said came from Israeli shooting. Ms. Shawhan says the Israeli troops did not shoot from the mosque but from a building nearby.

Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report, refuses to predict how long Israel will stay in Beit Jala. "It depends on whether something can be worked out whereby Arafat is given something more than just Israel withdrawing. He senses that Israel has made a mistake here and he is trying to exploit it."

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