In the city of Bethlehem, disarray and desperate times

The two most recent suicide bombers to strike Israel were from the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

The images of the young men's faces, painted with stencils in haunting repetition, reverberate across the city walls like an echo without end.

They are the faces of the men - and on rare occasions, women - whom Palestinians call martyrs and Israelis call terrorists. And their numbers are continuing to grow, many here say, with little connection to shifts in the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This city and its nearby villages, known for its shrinking Christian population and once viewed as a hub of moderation, is the hometown of the last two suicide bombers to strike Israel, including the one who blew himself up on a commuter bus on Sunday and another who killed himself and 10 others on Jan. 29.

Israeli officials say that Bethlehem, the Palestinian city closest to Jerusalem, has emerged as the new hotbed of bombers because it has no wall around it to deter would-be bombers from getting into Israel.

Palestinians here argue that on the contrary, the encroaching wall only gives young people the impression that hopes for a negotiated political solution are unrealistic, and that their lives about to get to get worse.

That Palestinians would send a suicide bomber into Israel on the eve of an unprecedented case in the International Court of Justice on the legality of Israel's growing separation wall across the West Bank seems, even to many Palestinians, a disturbing sign of their own state of disarray. Sunday's bombing, which killed eight Israelis and wounded more than 60, came at just as Palestinians had the world tuned into their case and Israelis were frustrated with what they viewed as lack of understanding for theirs.

"This last operation, this bombing, leads to a new idea - it shows that the people are acting without any proper plan and without any relationship to the situation," says Sheikh Abdul Majid Amarneh, an influential Islamist in Bethlehem. "They are not looking at the circumstances to see whether it is good or not. The pain is deep, and when it is deep, you start acting [without reason]."

Many Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree on one thing: that there's a growing disconnect between the Palestinian Authority leadership and average Palestinians, most of whom express little interest in taking cues from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or his prime minister Ahmed Qureia, also known as Abu Ala.

Naturally, both sides differ on whom to blame. Palestinians see several phenomena. Anger over the construction of the barrier - prompting the fear of being separated from Jerusalem - is only one of the reasons, but a still a significant one.

"Bethlehem and Jerusalem were always considered the same area and have branches of the same families, so to separate [them] is a disaster," says Nasser Laham, a prominent journalist from Bethlehem Television. "It's like cutting any city in two."

But beyond the barrier, Bethlehem suffers from its position as a sort of test case: it was to be Israel's litmus on whether the Palestinian Authority still had the will and capability to thwart violence against Israelis. After reoccupying all the major cities of the West Bank, Israel turned over security control of Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority almost eight months ago.

Palestinian security officials here say they are getting hit at both ends of the spectrum.

On the one hand, they don't have full control: there are almost nightly raids by the Israeli army, and in a bilateral meeting Tuesday, the Israeli army informed the Palestinian preventive security forces that they are no longer allowed to carry weapons on the streets of the city. On the other hand, the image that Bethlehem is supposed to be under Palestinian Authority control makes it the ideal place for Muslim militants in Hamas and Islamic Jihad to recruit bombers, because the end product is for them a dual victory: it hits Israelis but also the PA, viewed by Islamists as secular and corrupt.

"It's clear that we have tens of young people who are willing to become suicide bombers," says Col. Majdi Atari, the head of Bethlehem's Preventive Security Force. "We are being targeted because there are some Palestinian elements who want us to be a failure, because they don't want us to survive."

It is not by chance that so many bombers are coming from Bethlehem, he says, but neither do the PA's forces have the ability to stop all of them. Sunday's bomber, Colonel Atari points out, came from the village of Husan, which is under Area C, or regions of the West Bank that the Oslo Accords left under complete Israeli control.

"There is no such thing as coincidence in security," says Atari. "Because the ground here is fertile with Al Aqsa," a militant brigade that is an offshoot of Mr. Arafat's Fatah faction, "Hamas seeks them to carry out their bombings." Or, as described by one political source here, "Hamas has no people in Bethlehem to explode themselves and Fatah has no technology."

Palestinians here say that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's announcement that he would pull all Jewish settlements out of Gaza is also fueling the internal struggle. If Israel leaves Gaza, Palestinians say, major factions will vie for power with Arafat's weakened Fatah - and Hamas expects to emerge as the victor.

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