Letter From Beit Jala

Nicola Al-Alam peered out the second-floor window of her old stone house in the heart of Beit Jala, a Palestinian town in the West Bank, surveying a street now littered with broken glass and bullet casings. It was just before 5 p.m., and the gunbattles that had raged all day had begun to wind down. But the Israeli tank and armored personnel carrier were still positioned beside her front door, and her house was still being occupied by uninvited guests.

"We're prisoners," she says. Eight Israeli soldiers had burst into the house shortly after midnight, roused her children out of their beds and forced the family into the rear of their home. Then they had taken up positions in the front rooms, sealed off their section of the house and forbidden the family to leave. "It's crazy," she says, with an incongruous giggle. "Nobody can get in or out. They're hanging out, sleeping on the floor, opening their cans of sardines-the whole house smells of their damned fish." She laughs again. "We're suffocating in here, and we have no idea how long they'll be around."

Israel's latest incursion into Palestinian-controlled territory began after midnight on Tuesday, when ground troops backed by armored personnel carriers, tanks and bulldozers stormed into Beit Jala on the outskirts of Jerusalem, and seized five buildings often used by Palestinian gunmen to fire upon the adjacent Israeli settlement of Gilo. The Israeli foray, code-named Operation Safe Home, came two weeks after a similar invasion of the northern West Bank town of Jenin. But unlike that predawn raid, which ended almost as soon as it began, the Beit Jala operation looked closer to what Palestinian officials described as a full-scale reoccupation.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that the troops would remain in Beit Jala until "all the sources of gunfire are located and destroyed." By dusk Wednesday, after more than 40 hours, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government appeared to have reached an agreement for an Israeli withdrawal. But there was no indication that the deal would last for long-or that the Sharon government would refrain from similar moves into Palestinian-controlled zones in the future.

The latest incursion marked a dramatic ratcheting up in the yearlong intifada, and followed another deadly series of strikes and counterstrikes. The week began with another targeted killing of a Palestinian militant-Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Mustafa Zibri, held responsible by Israel for a series of car bombings-and continued with more fatal shootings of Israeli settlers, a failed suicide bombing in Beersheeba, and Israeli bulldozing of houses in the Gaza town of Rafah. With the June ceasefire mediated by CIA director George Tenet a distant memory, negotiations at a standstill, the U.S. government keeping its distance from the conflict and both sides locked into a vicious cycle of attack and retaliation, both sides seem infected by a deepening sense of fatalism. A poll released yesterday by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, based in the West Bank, showed that 81 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombings against Israelis as long as Israel continues to close off the West Bank and Gaza and keeps assassinating Palestinian militants. Nearly 60 percent of Palestinians expect the conflict to continue for the next five to 10 years, while 46 percent of Israelis share that opinion.

But for now, the residents of Beit Jala are concerned more about their short-term future. Furious shooting erupted throughout the morning and afternoon in the upper part of the mostly Christian hillside town, as Palestinian militants spilled through the labyrinthine alleys and across rooftops and attacked Israeli positions. For the first time since the intifada began, officers of the Palestinian national guard were shooting back at the Israelis alongside Tanzim militiamen. During a brief lull in the gunbattles, two black-bereted Palestinian soldiers took a breather beside a green military truck parked a block from Beit Jala's central square. The military hardware offered an inviting target for two Israeli helicopters that dove and whirled directly overhead, but Mohamed, a 32-year-old veteran of the Palestinian Authority army, didn't seem concerned. Gazing up at the gunships, he shrugged wearily; he had spent the last several hours firing at tanks from positions around the neighborhood mosque, he said, and had watched one of his fellow soldiers take a bullet in the head. "We're fighting with these old rifles against tanks and helicopters," he said. "But what other choice do we have when the Israelis raid our territory?"

A few blocks up the hill, shopkeeper Mohammed Anwar Khatib crept along the trash-covered roof of his house, careful to avoid any sudden movements that might startle the Israeli troops stationed in the buildings around him. The old three-story house was perched on a hill with clear views of Gilo just across the gorge. It made an inviting sniper's post, though Khatib swore that he had never allowed the Tanzim gunmen to occupy his rooftop. "Not once, not during this whole intifada," he says. "And I don't know anybody in the neighborhood who has." Still, the Israelis had his place in their sights; a rocket had sailed over his roof the previous day, tearing off a chunk of masonry and smashing through the window of the house across the alley. A bullet had also torn through the leg of one of his pet goats, which now bleated in pain in a straw-filled pen on the roof. Khatib petted the creature and fed it a handful of corn. "I sent the rest of the family to Hebron, but my goats are so dear to me, I cannot leave them alone," he says.

Leaving Khatib's house, we walked across the neighborhood toward Virgin Mary Street. Adjacent roads were blocked off by barricades of burning tires manned by Tanzim carrying AK-47s and dressed in black. Fifty yards up the hill, past the last Tanzim-manned barricade, a U.S.-issue Israeli tank squatted in the middle of the street, its giant gun barrel pointing downhill; an armored personnel carrier was parked behind it, the face of an anxious Israeli soldier peering out through bulletproof glass. A crowd stared at the brown vehicles with fear and fascination, and a young man spat in contempt.

As day turned to dusk and the temperature dropped precipitously, reports of an "understanding" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority swept through the neighborhood. According to news services, the troops had tentatively agreed to withdraw by late evening in return for guarantees from Arafat's men that the shooting from Beit Jala would cease. Nicola Al-Alam leaned out the window and told us that the Israeli soldiers had just left her house; her husband and two of the children emerged from their temporary prison and stepped into the street, gazing warily at the Israeli tank still stationed in front of their door. Then, moments later, the shooting erupted again. The crackle of incoming AK-47 bullets was met by a furious volley of tank fire; Israeli jeeps and APCs raced up and down the street, and shots seemed to ring out from all directions.

Pinned down behind a cinderblock wall in the Al-Alam garden, we waited for what seemed like hours for the shooting to cease. Then, an armored car packed with Israeli troops pulled up. "You want to get out of here?" We nodded and jumped in the back, squeezing onto the laps of two of the soldiers. With the rear door hanging open, the vehicle screeched through the streets. The troops dropped us off five minutes later at an Israeli checkpoint far from the scene of the fighting. "You're home free," the driver said. Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can expect to enjoy that luxury for a long time to come.