St. Francis Str. 1
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|STAND-OFF IN THE 'CITY OF PEACE'
By Caroline Hawley
BBC correspondent in Bethlehem
We had been warned they might be coming but it was still a shock when the tanks roared up the road and parked right outside the entrance of the Star Hotel, where the international media has been camped out trying to cover the extraordinary Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity.
We were ordered to stay in the lobby as soldiers installed themselves in the fifth floor restaurant with its huge glass windows that look onto Manger Square a few hundred metres away.
For days on end we had played cat and mouse with the soldiers trying again and again and again to get close to Manger Square.
Usually they would turn us back at the fork in the road which leads down to the old city of Bethlehem where the real destruction begins.
Cars crushed by Israeli tanks, shop shutters torn off, sewage flowing over the cobbles, pipes spewing out water and mounting, stinking piles of uncollected rubbish.
The centre of Bethlehem has become a public health hazard. Millions of dollars of investment for the millennium have gone up in smoke. And now we are sharing our hotel with the army responsible.
The restaurant of the Star with its three bullet holes from where Israeli soldiers earlier shot towards a cameraman is where we used to watch the Church of the Nativity, eyes trained on the ancient stone walls behind which are some 200 Palestinians.
Among them, the Israeli army says, are about 30 militants as well as civilians, Palestinian officials and policemen who had all taken refuge in the church during fighting after the Israeli army rolled into the little town of Bethlehem that describes itself as the city of peace.
A major human drama is now unfolding behind those walls. They are short of food and medicine.
Parts of the church have no electricity and the body of a Palestinian policeman killed earlier in the stand-off is now said to be rotting in a cave within the compound.
And we are watching it all from afar trying to imagine what is really going on inside.
'The stuff of fiction'
Sometimes we make contact with the people in the church on mobile phones with fading batteries.
It has been surreal, macabre - the stuff of fiction and pretty strange fiction at that.
We saw the Israeli army install a crane in Manger Square with a big box mounted on it from which the Palestinians say Israeli snipers fire towards the Church.
We watch them float big white surveillance balloons over the Church compound.
When the Palestinians shot one down one day the Israelis released small, silver balloons, almost like party balloons that bobbed over the rooftops, presumably to try to draw more Palestinian fire and identify where the gunmen were.
Balloons and bombs make a strange surreal combination.
And then there were the lights. I watched green laser spots dance up and down the bell tower of the church. The bell tower was later hit by gunfire. The same night, Israelis fired flares and fireworks and let off smoke and sound bombs.
It is all part of the psychological war Israel is waging on those inside.
A lot of the time the battered city of Bethlehem has looked from the distance calm and serene.
Sometimes it is so quiet you can hear the birds chirp in the trees but that is because its people are all cooped up under curfew, many without phone lines or electricity anymore, many running short of food.
No-one is able to go about even the simplest business, except when the curfew is lifted briefly every few days. No-one quite knows when.
Shortage of supplies
And then there is a frantic hunt for supplies in ill-stocked shops and desperate efforts to quickly fix the damage that tanks and foot soldiers have caused.
In the name of security the Israeli army has crashed through the lives of everyone in Bethlehem, leaving destruction and hate.
I saw a doctor shake his head in disbelief when he saw his clinic that had been trashed.
A 17-year-old girl told me she saw no future.
The only way forward now, she said, after what the Israelis had done, was for the Palestinians to carry on with their suicide bombings.
Her elderly grandmother couldn't get the medicines she needs for a paralysed arm. She was crying softly on a sofa when I walked in protected from the Israeli snipers outside with my flak-jacket and helmet.
'City of fear'
But the old lady was terrified. She had no phone line to call a doctor. She had lived through many wars, she said, now she was frightened that if she died they wouldn't even be able to bury her.
Bethlehem has become a city of fear and of noisy, sleepless nights.
It is after dark when the loud-speakers mounted in Manger Square start, calling on the people inside to surrender.
Then there are the ear-splitting noises, the car siren sounds and the screams and the dog barks. One night it was like the sound track to a bad horror movie.
All of it is blasted into one of Christianity's holiest sites, dragged into the middle of the latest Middle East war.
A Franciscan priest inside the Church, contacted by mobile phone, called it 'psycho terror'.
I'm lucky, I've just got sore ears and a desperate desire for a good long sleep.