Death comes to Manger Square

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- A day after Johnny Yousef Thalgieh was shot and killed, apparently by the Israeli army, his blood still stained Manger Square.

It was preserved yesterday as a memorial, encircled by blue police gates and chunks of broken limestone. It is a stark remembrance of the tall, skinny 17-year-old, who wanted to become a priest and died from a bullet to the heart a few steps from the Church of the Nativity, one of the holiest shrines in Christendom.

Members of Thalgieh's family mourned in their home yesterday, yards from the square, on a street whose Arabic name is translated "water from the well." The wooden lid of the coffin, adorned with a simple white cross, was propped inside their front door.

"There is a God, and God is stronger than anyone else," said Thalgieh's cousin and close friend Amil Ghatas, 19, who says he is confident of a Palestinian victory over the Israelis. "But right now, no place is safe, not even the place where Jesus was born."

Day 4 of Israel's military occupation of parts of Bethlehem and seven other Palestinian towns and cities across the West Bank brought more gunfire yesterday and a mounting Palestinian death toll, which stood at 23 since Thursday.

Both sides have dug in for what appears to be a long incursion, sparked by the assassination last week of Israeli Cabinet member Rehavim Zeevi. The operation has become the most sweeping Israeli offensive against the Palestinians since they gained autonomy with the Oslo peace accords in 1993.

Israeli officials, from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the army's chief of staff, stop short of calling this a war, and they repeated yesterday that their only goal is to stop terrorism and force the Palestinians to turn over Zeevi's killers.

But Palestinians and left-wing Israeli leaders say that Sharon has unleashed his armed forces to topple the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat, using the American war against the Taliban in Afghanistan as a guide.

"This is a real war," said Bethlehem Mayor Hanna J. Nasser, who blamed the deteriorating situation on the Israelis, saying they resumed assassinating militants last week just as peace negotiations appeared close.

"We are interested in a cease-fire," said Nasser, whose news conference was often interrupted by the sound of machine gun fire near the municipal building. "We did the best we could to keep violence down, but the Israelis made it impossible for us not to respond to their aggression."

Nasser has appealed for international intervention through letters and 107 phone calls to everyone from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to the Vatican. "We want the Israelis out of our holy city," he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in Washington for talks with Bush administration officials, assured Arafat yesterday that Israel had no intention of remaining in areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli army said yesterday that it will withdraw its troops when the threat of terrorism is over, Palestinian militants are disarmed and Zeevi's killers from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are in Israeli prisons.

The conflict in the Middle East may not be a declared war, but to all appearances it is one. Military briefings include detailed maps showing Israeli positions in Palestinian hotels, police stations and private homes. The forces include more than 50 tanks, as well as armored personnel carriers, paratroopers, helicopter gunships, armed bulldozers, engineering corps and special forces units.

Troops have ventured deep into Palestinian cities, taking over the central square of Beit Jala, parking tanks in church courtyards, imposing curfews and spraying bullets from 50-caliber machine guns mounted atop armored vehicles.

Many of the Palestinians killed were armed militants trying to fight back. But the Palestinians count many civilians among the dead, including Thalgieh, a pregnant woman hit by a bullet while inside her home, a mother who ran from her car in the midst of a gunbattle and a 12-year-old girl struck down inside a school.

Three people were killed in or near Bethlehem yesterday afternoon, including a young man at Rachel's Tomb and a man in neighboring Beit Jala. In an apparent act of desperation, a young man stood in front of a tank at a Bethlehem refugee camp, threw an explosive device at it, and then was shot and killed. A fourth person, a 10-year-old girl, was shot to death in her home in the village of Sanoor, near Jenin.

At the Vatican yesterday, Pope John Paul II expressed sorrow over the situation and singled out Thalgieh's killing.

"War and death arrived even on the square of the Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lord," the pope said during his noon prayer. "Violence is for everybody only a path of death and destruction, which dishonors the holiness of God and the dignity of man."

Army officials denied killing or targeting civilians, and said they had warned the Palestinians where troops were headed so residents could seek shelter. Officials said they have refrained from firing at churches, even though militants are using the buildings as cover. At least seven Israeli soldiers were wounded, one seriously.

Israeli government officials are preparing to fly to Europe, Russia and the United States during the next two weeks to try to convince world leaders that Arafat's government supports terror and that it should be dealt with in the same way as the Taliban.

But there is considerable debate within Sharon's government about this new offensive. The left-leaning Labor Party is threatening to pull out of the coalition, saying it does not want to join in a war.

Peres, a member of the Labor Party does not support the incursions and is pressing to resume negotiations with Arafat. He has warned that the West Bank offensive could turn into a Lebanon -- an Israeli invasion nearly two decades ago that led to occupation and became a quagmire similar to the U.S. experience in Vietnam.

"Should we topple the Palestinian Authority, there will be a blood bath in the territories," he told a television station before departing for the United States.

Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik, also a Labor member, predicted that her party would leave the government within three months. "This is an unfolding war that may result in us becoming trapped in the military and political mire," she said during yesterday's Cabinet meeting.

The Palestinian Authority appealed to the United Nations Security Council yesterday and announced steps that it says proves it is serious about a cease-fire. The measures include the arrests of 33 Popular Front members, though not Zeevi's killers; a ban on militant wings of political parties, including the Popular Front; and orders to arrest anyone who breaks the truce.

But Palestinian officials remained steadfast in refusing to hand over any suspects and said they will not enforce their prohibition on militants until Israel pulls its troops out of their cities.

In Bethlehem yesterday, the mood was somber. Most streets had emptied, and virtually every shop was shuttered. Soldiers had not advanced to Manger Square, but tanks could be seen from it, on the roads to Beit Jala. Soldiers were posted on the roofs of the Paradise and Intercontinental hotels, and a tank was parked on Yasser Arafat Street.

Bursts of gunfire were constant, and the few people who were out stayed close to buildings and darted into the streets only if they absolutely had to go somewhere.

Thalgieh's family gathered to mourn in a room adorned with portraits of Jesus.

They described the young man as a typical teen-ager who dressed in jeans and T-shirts, but who went every day to the Church of the Nativity, where he helped priests do everything from prepare Mass to sweep between the pews.

He was the third of five children, ranging in age from 7 to 19, and had wanted to become a priest since he was little. He was killed just after dusk as he played in Manger Square with his 2-year-old cousin, Michael Thalgieh.

Khalil Mouti, 47, an out-of-work tour guide, said he saw Thalgieh put down his cousin moments before being shot. Mouti said he believes the bullet was fired by Israeli soldiers posted on a street several hundred yards away.

Thalgieh's cousin, Suheil Thalgieh, 35, pleaded for help. "America is the only one that can stop this," he said, as he accepted condolences from a long line of friends. "At some point, they will wake up and realize that the problems of the whole world begin in Jerusalem, not in Afghanistan. We are tired with losing innocent lives."

His cousin "wasn't shooting at anyone, and he wasn't carrying a gun," he said. "The only thing he was carrying was a child."

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