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On the Front Lines in Beit Jala - 2001-08-29

Fierce gun battles raged between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops Wednesday in the West Bank town of Beit Jala, shortly before the two sides announced a cease-fire in the area.

On Iraq Street in the center of Beit Jala, Palestinian gunmen moved out into the open to shoot at Israeli soldiers and then ducked into doorways to seek shelter from the Israeli gunfire heading in their direction.

Israeli troops moved into the town in a bid to prevent Palestinians from firing at the adjacent Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The Israeli move has intensified the anger of the Palestinians.

Holding a pipebomb in one hand that he later hurled at Israeli soldiers, one Palestinian gunman said he was not afraid to die for the cause of liberating Beit Jala from military occupation. He said his wife, who was home nursing their newborn son, encouraged him to fight. He said she wished she could have been at his side. "For Muslims and Arabs, Jihad (holy war) is more important than family and our children," he said. "For us the land equals our children and we defend them."

Despite saying they were willing to die for their cause, in the heat of battle, the Palestinians also showed they knew when to fight and when to retreat.

As an Israeli tank rumbled toward them, the Palestinian riflemen ran for cover, and waited for another opportunity to fire back at the enemy.

It remained uncertain whether the Palestinian militants would abide by an understanding reached between Israeli and Palestinian political leaders to observe a local truce.

Bishara Daoud, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a resident of Beit Jala, does not believe any cease-fire will last as long as Israel continues to occupy areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He said Beit Jala had not been truly liberated even when it was first handed over to Palestinian self-rule six years ago because Israeli troops remained on the outskirts of the town.

"I think we still are facing the occupation itself, no withdrawal for the Israelis, even when they took this step to enter again Area A (denoting a Palestinian self-rule area) in Beit Jala, it doesn't mean that Beit Jala had been liberated completely because we could not control our sky (above us) or the (ground) beneath the earth," Mr. Daoud said.

Mr. Daoud added that the message of the Palestinian uprising that began last September is clear. There will be no peace, he says, until Israel withdraws from all parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.