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Israelis Occupy Palestinian Town, U.S. Urges Withdrawal

By Lee Hockstader
THE WASHINGTON POST -- beit jala, West Bank

It was shortly after 1:30 a.m. Tuesday when Israeli tanks roared out of the darkness onto Beit Jala’s Virgin Mary Street. They took up positions in front of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation and paratroopers rushed to the church doors.

Inside, the director of the church’s German-funded home for orphaned and destitute boys herded 45 frightened children -- the youngest 6 years old -- into the basement laundry room. “The soldiers pounded on the door trying to break in,” said Khadr Musalem, the director. “After they entered they took the key and kept it. I argued it was the church’s key, but they took it by force.”

The troops swept on to the upper floors of the orphanage, using it as a firing base for heavy machine guns, and occupied other strategic sites around a large swath of Beit Jala, a largely Christian Palestinian town just south of Jerusalem. They were still there Tuesday evening after a day of sporadic and occasionally fierce fighting, crossing another red line in the 11-month-old Palestinian uprising.

Israeli officials said they would remain as long as necessary to stop the Palestinian gunfire repeatedly directed from Beit Jala across a little valley toward Gilo, a Jewish neighborhood built on land captured in 1967 on the southern outskirts of the Israeli capital.

Israeli incursions into West Bank and Gaza territory turned over to the Palestinians since the 1993 Oslo accords have grown frequent in recent months. But they’ve also been brief -- a few hours, typically, to level some houses or offices and fire at Palestinian security outposts. The pattern was set April 17 when Israeli forces moved into a Palestinian-controlled section of Gaza. Initially they announced they might stay indefinitely. After Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced the move, they quickly pulled back.

Powell remained silent this time. But the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, urged Israel to withdraw, saying such incursions “only make matters worse.” Boucher also urged Palestinians to stop shooting at Israelis “in Gilo and elsewhere.”

But it was unclear the Israelis would withdraw as swiftly as they did in April, particularly since three mortar rounds were fired late Tuesday night at Gilo. Even if the troops do eventually leave, Tuesday’s reoccupation of Beit Jala seemed to signal yet another intensification of a bloody conflict that goes beyond previous milestones of escalation with dangerous regularity.

Israel’s invasion of Beit Jala was fraught with peril for both sides. For the Israelis, the danger was primarily diplomatic: the British, Chinese, Egyptian and other governments issued immediate condemnations. For the Palestinians, the incursion was a sign that they could forfeit precious territory gained by negotiations in the last seven years if they continue to press their armed uprising.

About two-thirds of Beit Jala’s 12,500 Palestinian residents are Christians -- the town is just two miles from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, considered the birthplace of Jesus -- and few have been involved in the Palestinian uprising that has raged since Sept. 29. But the town has nonetheless been a flash point because Palestinian gunmen from outside have entered Beit Jala, using it as an occasional firing base -- to the displeasure of many of the town’s residents.