Israeli troops retook control of Bethlehem Friday in response to the bus bombing in Jerusalem a day earlier that killed 11 people. The army moved in without incident and set up checkpoints at several locations. Soldiers also destroyed several homes believed to belong to those involved in attacks on Israelis.
A small group of young boys gather on the corner of the street across from Manger Square. Israeli soldiers shout at them to go home. An Israeli jeep approaches and is greeted with a shower of stones but it is a half-hearted affair. The young boys scatter down the cobblestone streets giving up the game for now.
It has been a quiet day in Bethlehem, considering that an army moved in. The Israeli troops met no resistance when they rolled in during the pre-dawn hours.
The first place they headed was here to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. For it was here last spring that Palestinian gunmen fought running gun-battles with Israeli troops before shooting their way into the church. And there they stayed surrounded by Israeli troops until finally agreeing to be sent into exile in Gaza and abroad after a lengthy siege.
Nothing like that happened this time. Which was just fine with Father Karnardos, the Greek Orthodox Superior of the church. "Church is the place of the pray only," he said. "Not for the people to come inside."
Father Karnardos said he and his fellow priests did not want another siege and therefore closed the church once they learned the Israeli army was coming. He preferred not to say he locked the doors, but rather, he says, he decided not to open them.
Father Karnardos and the half dozen other priests who emerged into Manger Square in the fading light of the late afternoon sun said the church will resume its normal pattern of life. Although he readily admits this pattern of life, the one that has developed in the past 26 months of violence and conflict, could hardly be called normal.
The Israeli army has established a curfew in Bethlehem and no one is supposed to be on the streets. They tolerate the young boys who look to be between five and nine-years-old. But on one corner three older boys also gathered.
One of them is Omar Habib. He spent 25 days in the Church of the Nativity during the standoff last spring. He says he knows the Israeli soldiers may not be as willing to tolerate his presence in violation of the curfew but adds he doesn't care. "What will they do? They will kill me," he said. "If they will kill me, God [will] take me."
Omar Habib accepts the Israeli presence without complaint. They don't bother me, he says, it is the families with children whose parents cannot work that the world should care about.
Omar did not say anything about the Israeli children who were killed in Thursday's bus bombing, or in many previous Palestinian attacks.
As he stands on the edge of the square he keeps a watchful eye on the young men, not much older than he is, who man the Israeli armored vehicles just a dozen meters away. He says that for now they are only the enemy, and he says many things would have to happen before that would change. "If they want peace, OK," said Omar Habib. "There is no problem. But if they want to kill me and bring his gun there's a problem."
After meeting with his security cabinet in the wake of the most recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that the agreement with Palestinians to relax control in Bethlehem was canceled. He ordered what the Israeli press described as wide scale and extensive operations to combat terror attacks.
The Israeli military command in Bethlehem announced Friday that the operation, called "Chain Reaction", has no time limit and will continue as long as necessary.