BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Oct. 29 — The outcome of Israel’s armed assault on this ancient town was clear for the Palestinians today: torn-up neighborhoods, streets and lives. For the Israelis, the result was more ambiguous: Military muscle was flexed, but security, which Israel said was its goal, remained elusive.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Oct. 29 — The outcome of Israel’s armed assault on this ancient town was clear for the Palestinians today: torn-up neighborhoods, streets and lives.
For the Israelis, the result was more ambiguous: Military muscle was flexed, but security, which Israel said was its goal, remained elusive.
When residents and merchants on Manger Street surveyed the town in the aftermath of Israel’s violent 11-day incursion, they saw crippling damage to property and lives. Two major buildings were severely burned, a dozen shops smashed by bulldozers, several houses burned or trashed by soldiers and at least 15 gunmen and a half-dozen civilians killed in blazes of gunfire.
The residents and merchants also concluded that anger sparked by the assault may well lead to more violence.
“This hotel looks like charcoal. My business is ruined,” said Ibrahim Atrash, owner of the blackened, six-story Paradise Hotel, which Israeli troops used as a firing base. “So, look around at these young men on the street. They are silent, but among them is one that will want to go to Israel and destroy.”
This was the widespread view in Bethlehem today as residents began to repair damage and mourn losses. The expectation of doom was not expressed in tones of defiance so much as in knowing sadness. In the minds of the people of Bethlehem, the cycle of violence has become as certain as the arrival of winter rain in November.
“We have come to expect nothing but the worst,” said Khader Carra, owner of a burned office building in central Bethlehem.
Israeli officials hailed the incursion, and the uneventful pullout late Sunday, as ratification of a different approach: Only violence can put an end to violence. Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told legislators that the incursion had preempted a series of terrorist attacks on Israel and saved 20 lives a day.
Haim Ramon, a skeptical member of parliament from Ben-Eliezer’s Labor Party, challenged the defense minister. “If this is the case, why did the [army] withdraw?” he asked.
The security gains for Israel seemed illusory. Even before its troops had left Bethlehem, Palestinians carried out a pair of drive-by shootings in Israel that took five lives. Moreover, Palestinian militia groups have evidently not given up attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The drumbeat of grenade-throwing, roadside bombings and mortar firings continued throughout today.
The incursions caused renewed conflict between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and the United States, Israel’s principal ally and benefactor. During several recent Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory, the Bush administration lodged perfunctory complaints. But at a time when the United States is trying to hold together disparate countries in a coalition against terrorism, the scenes of destruction and death in Bethlehem were alarming: Arab governments pressed the United States to stop Sharon, and President Bush urged Israel to pull back.
Sharon resisted U.S. pressure for an immediate withdrawal, and instead began what may become a phased pullback. Even though Israel left Bethlehem and the adjoining town of Beit Jala, its forces remained in four large West Bank towns north of Jerusalem — Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Jenin and Ramallah.
Israel insists the incursions, which constituted its most ambitious offensive in 13 months of fighting, were aimed at an enemy that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, had refused to confront on his own territory. The army said it arrested 42 Palestinian “terrorists,” but none of them is a prominent leader of any Palestinian militant group. Some of the accused killers of an Israeli right-wing cabinet minster, Rehavam Zeevi, who was assassinated in Jerusalem Oct. 17, remain at large.
Critics questioned whether the reoccupation of Palestinian territory would subdue the violence, adding that the Palestinians had refused to submit during the earlier occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both of which Israel ruled for 27 years before turning back parts of them in 1994 and ’95. “Another period of Israeli occupation will certainly not stop terror attacks today,” said Danny Rubenstein, a veteran correspondent for Haaretz newspaper.
If the price of combating terrorism is the temporary annoyance of the United States and other Western governments, so be it, some Israelis say. “We arrested and prevented the activities of many terrorists,” a senior Israeli security source said today while briefing foreign reporters. “International pressure is one thing. Terrorist attacks are something else.”
Israel has denied it is trying to undermine or end Arafat’s rule or destroy his Palestinian Authority. But according to analysts on both sides, the effect of the Israeli military operations inside Palestinian territory is to erode Arafat’s power — even as Israel and the West insist he use his power to combat terrorism.
The erosion of Arafat’s authority has sounded alarms among some diplomats. They contend that power is steadily passing from Arafat’s security forces to an alliance of militant Palestinian nationalist and Islamic groups that have conducted much of the fighting against Israel.
But Israeli officials tend to shrug off warnings that Arafat’s control is crumbling, and profess little concern for the Palestinian leader’s fate.
“This thing can last for five or six years,” an Israeli official said today, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s a war of attrition more than anything else.”
In Bethlehem, the damage was like nothing the town had ever experienced. Two of its proudest civic landmarks, Bethlehem University and Holy Family maternity hospital and orphanage, were pockmarked by bullets. But it was in the Palestinian refugee camps of Aza and Ayda at the northern end of town that damage was most severe.
The Aza refugee camp is a small, triangular warren of alleyways that houses 2,300 people. Israeli tanks and armored cars ringed the camp, while gunmen shot from behind cinder-block houses and stores. Two Palestinian gunmen battling to keep the Israelis from penetrating the camp were killed and one mute nurse was fatally shot in the neck when he stuck his head out of the window of his home.
The worst damage befell a row of shops on Manger Street, a battered route on the eastern side of the camp. The shops were hit following an incident that apparently enraged the Israeli troops: A Palestinian camp defender threw a pipe bomb under the treads of an Israeli armored vehicle and disabled it. After the vehicle was dragged away, a bulldozer returned to smash in the front doors of the shops.
“It was just anger. They couldn’t stand us defending our camp,” said Kamal Qaisi, owner of a small restaurant that was smashed by the bulldozer.
Yusuf Furejine and his family were surprised when the bulldozer crashed through the living room of their home. Fifteen members of the extended clan escaped through a back window just as the Israelis began to rake the broken facade with gunfire. “Believe it or not, we’re going to rebuild,” Furejine said. “We are not going to become refugees for a second time.”