The guns briefly fell silent and church bells rang out across Bethlehem yesterday as hundreds turned out to join Church leaders in a march for peace.
Christian and Muslim leaders unite in a plea for peace in Bethlehem
Sweeping through the Israeli checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem, patriarchs and Church leaders locked arms in solidarity as they headed towards the town centre past an impassive group of soldiers.
With flags and a silver cross held aloft they marched forward in a swirl of colour - papal purple, the black of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox and the brown of the Franciscans.
In a symbolic gesture, a Palestinian Catholic priest stopped to scoop up handfuls of Israeli bullet casings and threw them in the air like confetti. Nearby, women and children, weary from days of torment, ventured nervously from their homes to investigate and whooped for joy as if a siege had been lifted.
The swelling procession stopped outside the once popular Paradise Hotel - now a shattered, blackened shell. Along the street, cars and rubbish bins were battered, burnt and discarded after five days of fighting.
Faten Mukarker was close to tears. "The Israeli soldiers arrived at our house in the middle of the night, smashed our car, broke through our front door and rampaged around, shooting wildly into the bedrooms," the Christian mother of four recalled.
"Those animals have terrified innocent civilians while the so-called Christian leaders in Europe do nothing. We hope this demonstration will bring them to their senses."
As the procession moved on through the cobbled streets of Beit Jala, the hillside village on Bethlehem's western edge, women waved from their balconies amid the clamour of pealing church bells.
Sharbel Boutto, 12, was clutching a poster of his best friend, Johnny Thaljieh, a 16-year-old altar boy killed by Israeli gunfire. At the entrance to Nativity Square he pointed out the spot where Johnny had been hit as he left Mass on Saturday.
"Johnny and I used to play together but now he is gone," the tearful Sharbel said. "I don't understand because Mr Sharon said he will not touch women and children in Bethlehem. Why did they do this?"
In the square the agony of recent days was briefly forgotten as the procession was cheered like conquering heroes by local residents. The Church leaders and their escorts squeezed through the entrance to the Nativity Church, the 4th-century basilica built above the birthplace of Jesus, to make their way to the adjacent Franciscan Monastery.
St Catherine's church roof was hit by Israeli gunfire at the weekend and the Church leaders, circled around the altar, took turns to offer their condolences to the relatives of 14 people killed in Bethlehem over the past week and to appeal for peace.
Each prayer was met with generous applause as first a Muslim leader from Jerusalem stepped forward, followed by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's ambassador to the Holy Land.
Afterwards Archbishop Riah Abu Al Asal, the local head of the Anglican Church, said: "It was important to come here today to show solidarity with the people. We wanted to send a message out to the world: 'This bloodshed has to stop'."
As the Church leaders dispersed in the bright sunshine to return to Jerusalem, a burst of automatic gunfire echoed nearby, a reminder that the peaceful display of solidarity may have been just a brief respite.
Two blocks away at the Holy Family hospital workers were still clearing up from a gun battle the previous evening. Staff showed us the room where babies, born prematurely, were grabbed from their incubators after the windows were shattered by Israeli gunfire.
Back in Beit Jala, Hussan Jubar, 38, and his family were also clearing up. For three days he, his wife and four children had been besieged in their home by Israeli soldiers He explained how they had axed down the door, rounded up the family and locked them in the kitchen.
More than 20 soldiers had taken up positions in the house, exchanging gunfire with Palestinian militia fighters from his bedroom, bathroom and living room over the next two days and nights. He was certain the soldiers would return, probably that night, he said, under cover of darkness.
"We are peaceful Christian people so what have we done to deserve this?" he asked. "We hope this peace march today will change something but it seems the Israelis do not want peace." Just hours after the peace march, fierce clashes between the army and Palestinian gunmen erupted in Bethlehem and carried on into the night.
The fighting came as army sources said they were expecting orders to withdraw blockades from around six Palestinian towns within 48 hours following talks between the Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and President Bush in Washington.
Before the visit, Israel's relations with America had deteriorated when on Monday it rejected a demand to withdraw "immediately" from the towns and dismissed tough American criticisms of the army. Last night, Palestinian medical officials said Israeli tank fire had yesterday killed two Palestinian men in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.
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