Israel Expands its Military Occupation of the Bethlehem Area

Beit Jala, 29 August 2001, 01:00 p.m.

The partial Israeli re-occupation of the Palestinian town of Beit Jala and adjacent areas, including the north-western border of Aida refugee camp, has entered its second day. After more than 35 hours of violent battles between the Israeli occupation army and the Palestinian resistance, and in the absence of determined international intervention, the outcome of this new escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains uncertain.

How long will the Israeli forces remain in the area?

Although Israeli media reported that the Sharon government informed the US and European governments that this military operation will be a matter of no more than several hours, Israeli government and army spokespersons argue that authorization for the re-invasion of the Palestinian areas south of the Gilo settlement was given by the "security cabinet" two-and-a-half weeks ago without limitation in time and specifying only the aim: to assure that Palestinian shooting at the Gilo settlement will be terminated once for all. This aim has not been achieved. To the contrary, shooting at the Gilo settlement from the larger Beit Jala and Bethlehem area has reached an unprecedented scope, including light and heavy ammunition, as well a mortars, in response to the Israeli escalation. Moreover, the Sharon government and its army commanders have never clarified the ways and means by which the current "limited Israeli presence" should lead to a halt of the shooting at the Gilo settlement.

Events on the ground (28-29 August):

By the noon of 29 September, several new steps indicate that Israel is about to expand its operation by closing in on the Bethlehem area from the south. The positions taken in the north-western Beit Jala area by the Israeli occupation army at the time of its initial incursion in the early morning hours of 28 August have remained unchanged. Israeli tanks and artillery are stationed in the upper section of the town of Beit Jala (some 300 meters into Palestinian controlled "area A") and on the northern border of Aida refugee camp, in addition to the previously existing military bases below the Gilo settlement and at the entrance to Bethlehem. The Israeli occupation army thus controls the north-western area of Beit Jala and Bethlehem and has imposed a curfew on its Palestinian residents. Fierce Palestinian resistance has prevented Israeli movement beyond this area, and frequent attempts to enter further into the adjacent Aida refugee camp have so far been stopped.

Today, at around 11:45, Israeli tanks coming from the Israeli Jerusalem-Hebron road (Road no. 60) rolled into the Palestinian village of Al-Khader, located on the southern boarder of Bethlehem. As of now, the Israeli army has re-occupied an area reaching from the Pools of Suleiman until the old town of Al-Khader. Despite the curfew imposed there, Palestinian residents are trying to resist, using light weapons, Molotov cocktails and kitchen gas bottles in order to encounter the assault. News about Israeli plans to re-occupy the UNRWA operated and internationally protected Aida refugee camp are causing much apprehension in the camp.

Contrary to Israeli assertions that Palestinian civilians, their property, as well as holy sites will not be harmed, suffering and damages are substantial. Israeli tanks withdrew only late last night from the courtyard of Beit Jala's Lutheran church, after holding hostage some 50 Palestinian orphans - confined to one room without food and drink - for a whole day. Also last night, Israeli forces entered the mosque located next to the church, using it as a military position since then. Since yesterday morning, Muhammad Hassan al Masheikheh and his family counting 20 members have been forced to share their home on the northern edge of Aida refugee camp with a dozen of Israeli soldiers who took position in their house. Efforts by the camp residents in coordination with the ICRC and UNRWA to obtain the release of the family have so far remained futile. This morning, Israeli bulldozers destroyed the adjacent wall of the Armenian monastery, and prepared new access roads towards the camp for army vehicles. Two Palestinian resistance fighters (one member of the Palestinian security forces, one civilian, resident of Aida refugee camp) have so far been killed in the confrontations. More than 30 persons are reported injured, several cars belonging to civilians have been destroyed, and an unknown number of Palestinian homes have been damaged. Armed confrontations between the Israeli occupier and the Palestinian resistance continue until this moment. Social and economic life in the Bethlehem-Beit Jala area is paralyzed, public service institutions operate only partially, and Palestinian schools, scheduled to re-open this week have remained closed.

What are the prospects?

The initial partial and limited Israeli re-occupation of Palestinian controlled lands cannot achieve the declared aim, i.e. halt Palestinian shooting on the Gilo settlement, in the short and medium term. Therefore, the Israeli operation must be seen as part of the long-term strategy of the Sharon government, which has been outlined extensively by Israeli commentators in yesterday's Israeli news programs. The declared aim is to gradually re-occupy all or most of the areas designated as Palestinian controlled areas under the Oslo Accords, and to crush Palestinian resistance by means of extra-judicial killings, arrests and deportation of its leaders. These measures are to be accompanied by an international public relations campaign aiming to further de-legitimize the aims and persons guiding the Palestinian struggle for internationally recognized rights. In this context, it does not matter much whether Israel will eventually be forced by the international community to withdraw from the areas it currently re-occupied in the Beit Jala and Bethlehem area. What matters for the Israeli government is its ability to establish a new fact, i.e. that the international community accepts Israeli invasion and re-occupation whenever Israel identifies a need to do so, i.e. to re-introduce the normality of direct military occupation, even if the price is the immediate and long term escalation of the conflict, human suffering and an uncertain future for Palestinians and Israelis in the region.