Israel: We'll Leave Beit Jala if Firing Stops

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, backed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, last night told Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to stop the shooting at Gilo - including three mortars last night that caused some damage but no injuries - and Israel will pull out of Beit Jala.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, backed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, last night told Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to stop the shooting at Gilo - including three mortars last night that caused some damage but no injuries - and Israel will pull out of Beit Jala.

Beit Jala, a mostly Christian town south of Jerusalem, was almost empty of its residents last night, after the Israel Defense Forces occupied the northeast corner of the Palestinian town, which faces Gilo. Most of the residents went to relatives elsewhere in the West Bank - mostly Bethlehem - and Israeli security sources reported last night that Palestinian Tanzim forces "were flowing to the town," indicating that fighting could yet intensify in the village.

Late last night there were reports that the IDF troops accompanied by bulldozers were moving into the Aide refugee camp abutting Beit Jala. The IDF earlier had noted that some of the sporadic machine gun fire - including 0.5 caliber heavy machine guns - were arching out of the refugee camp toward Gilo, instead of flying into the Jerusalem suburb on flat trajectories from Beit Jala.

Meanwhile, two key Israeli allies - the U.S. and Britain - called on Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian town. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called on Israel to pull its forces out of Beit Jala. "The Israelis need to understand that incursions like this will not solve the security problems. They only make the situation worse," he said at a briefing. "The Palestinians need to stop the shootings and attacks against Israelis in Gilo and elsewhere," he said.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, preparing for a visit to the region that would include meetings with top officials in Israel and the PA, called for "an immediate" Israeli withdrawal.

Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer last night decided to leave IDF troops in place in the town until the intense diplomatic activity gets results. That activity included Peres' phone calls to Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, key European foreign ministers and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell weighed in with his own calls to key regional and European figures.

Troops meanwhile fortified rooftop positions with sandbags and took over strategic positions in Beit Jala homes - sometimes requiring residents to move into basements - and appeared to be readying for an indefinite stay.

Despite the IDF effort to stop Palestinian gunfire from Beit Jala, sporadic gunfire as well as mortar fire continued. A machine gun bullet hit an Israel TV truck, while Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert was being interviewed live. No injuries were reported. Olmert called on residents to stay at home, off the streets exposed to gunfire.

At least 31 apartments were hit by bullets in the south Jerusalem neighborhood, which overlooks Beit Jala. A mortar fell in the empty yard of the Gilo Community Center, which usually is full of people attending evening programs. Last night it was empty because of the shooting all day. Another hit Habosem Street between two cars, damaging them. A third landed on a roof on Te'ana Street. Again there were no injuries reported.

Gilo residents have been calling for an IDF takeover in Beit Jala ever since the shooting at the neighborhood began early in the days of the intifada. But last night, with the IDF in the town and shooting continuing, Gilo residents were depressed.

"For ten months we've been asking the army to go into Beit Jala, said Meir Turgeman, head of the neighborhood administration. "If this doesn't work, it really looks desperate."

Inside Beit Jala, while troops hunkered down in armored vehicles and atop Palestinian apartments, Palestinian security forces were lurking only a block or two away on Virgin Mary Street.

The IDF also took over a Lutheran Church compound that includes an orphanage with 45 children, ages six to 16. The children were placed under curfew and took cover from gunfire in a basement. Troops set up a machine gun position on the roof of an adjacent five-story church hostel under construction, witnesses said.

"We demand that the army immediately withdraw from our church premises," said Munib Younan, the Lutheran bishop of Jerusalem. The army, which wanted the church hostel because of its strategic location and panoramic view, pledged to ensure the safety of the children.

"Beit Jala has become a sniper's nest, and our forces entered in order to clean it up and to stop the fire," said government spokesman Avi Pazner. "They will stay there as long as is needed to get the security back." Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said Israel was not planning to reoccupy Beit Jala, but would do so if there was no other way to stop Palestinian attacks. Israel withdrew from Beit Jala and most other Palestinian communities in the West Bank in 1995, ending 28 years of military rule.

Beit Jala resident Bishara Kharufeh, 56, was one of the few Beit Jala residents to remain in the town. "The Israeli soldiers took over all the house and asked us to stay in one room, plus the bathroom and the kitchen," he said. "The soldiers pushed over the furniture and took over the top two floors of the house and put an army post on the roof, surrounded by sandbags."

The army acknowledged it has taken over buildings in strategic locales in the town of narrow, winding streets. But Brig. Gen. Yitzhak stressed that "it is our intention to conclude the operation without harm to Palestinian civilians, to the holy sites, to which we are very sensitive."