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Middle East: report from Bethlehem.

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MARK COLVIN: In Israel and Palestine, conflict is always imbued with bleak historical irony. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Jews massacred by a suicide bomber at Passover which, of course, commemorates a time when the Jews were spared from massacre. And now, just after the Christian commemoration of the death of Jesus, there’s carnage in his birthplace, Bethlehem. Our correspondent, Tim Palmer, is in Bethlehem, and I asked him about conflicting reports about the alleged death of a Catholic priest in the town.


TIM PALMER: The latest from church officials is that a priest wasn’t killed yesterday. Several churches were hit by Israeli tank fire during the day, but we simply haven’t been able to confirm that fact. It is very difficult to get any facts on the ground here because journalists are being targeted by fire, arrested, strip searched, moved out of the Palestinian territories. In the last few hours, CNN and NBC have been told to stop broadcasting out of Ramallah, for example, or else legal action will be taken against those networks. Putting that aside, though, what we do know is that, as you said, the trouble in Bethlehem couldn’t be closer to the birthplace of Jesus. It is, in fact, in the church that marks the spot where the birth is reputed to have happened—the Church of the Nativity.


It is reported that a couple of hundred metres from where I am at the church, around 150 people are now holed up inside the building. Some of them are thought to be Palestinian militiamen from the Bethlehem area. Others are civilians who took shelter there during the fierce fighting that engulfed the whole Manger Square area for most of yesterday. The fighting has calmed down. Probably the last heavy exchange was six or seven hours ago, but with people holed up in the churches at the moment, we don’t know if there’s an attempt to negotiate a way out or whether we are about to see another assault that will go right into the churches, essentially, to try to remove the people that Israel says that they are after in this attack.


MARK COLVIN: Tim, if you went out on the street now, if you went that 200 metres up the street, you probably wouldn’t survive—is that right?


TIM PALMER: There would certainly be a chance. Only 50 metres up the road, the firing started yesterday. As reported, we came under fire in that area. As soon as you cross the next intersection, conditions are pretty impossible any further into the heart of Bethlehem. There is no power there; there is no food and water; people can’t get to food, at this stage. They’ve been under curfew now for 36 hours. Obviously, the situation in Ramallah is even worse, where people have been under curfew now for days, and shops have been closed. People are simply running out of food. It is a very dangerous situation in the heart of Bethlehem at the moment. Clearly, the security situation is even worse still in Ramallah. The curfew there is tighter. The fighting has still concentrated around the Palestinian Preventative Security compound. Aside from the actual coverage of the fighting there, I think it is a very significant attack by Israel, to move on the Preventative Security which is headed by Jibril Rajoub. This man who many would have seen as the person most likely to cooperate with Israel if there is a cease-fire at the end of this series of invasions at the moment—his position now, many Palestinians believe, if, in any way, he approaches the Israelis at any stage now to cooperate with security somewhere down the track, he’ll simply be seen as a collaborator. When some of the people inside the compound yesterday surrendered and were arrested—many of them then transported to Gaza and released again—people were suggesting that Jibril Rajoub had basically collaborated with Israel at that point. So the Palestinian community is certainly not prepared to take anything but a very tough line in terms of future security cooperation with Israel, and it is a very significant move to go against the Preventative Security body so directly.


MARK COLVIN: That certainly does indicate that the Palestinian mood seems to be now that nothing short of martyrdom is any good on their side. I believe that there has been another attempted suicide bomb even in the last few hours.


TIM PALMER: Overnight in Baqa al-Gharbiya, Israeli forces say a person that they killed there—that is a border town where a lot of people have passed through into the northern part of Israel from the northern West Bank. Because it is a town that essentially straddles the Green Line, there are two parts to the town. It is one of these real conundrums in that if they ever did separate, what would they do with this town? As a result, it is a place where people do try and cross illegally into Israel. They say that they killed a man who was attempting to launch a suicide attack in Israel again. There is no suggestion that there is going to be a let-up in the bombing campaign at this stage, although as Israel moves more and more into towns—and it invaded Jenin overnight where a large number of suicide bombers over the past 12 months have emerged from the refugee camps in Jenin, in particular—it is only a matter of time before they move into Nablus. The test will then be: has that delivered—at least for now—any security for Israel in terms of preventing the movement of people to get into Israeli territory. I think there is a strong feeling that that may not do.


MARK COLVIN: All these places you are talking about are so-called autonomous cities, but that word ‘autonomous’ is now complete fiction, isn’t it? What is the difference between what is happening now and an Israeli occupation as such?


TIM PALMER: On whatever length of time it is going to turn out to be, it is certainly an occupation. The Israeli Army—when reporters questioned them about what jurisdiction they had to arrest reporters, for example, in these cities because it is a Palestinian autonomous territory, they simply said: It is not any more. But the situation is far worse for civilians there. Medical crews are simply unable to move here in Bethlehem. No-one has been brought to hospital. In Ramallah, 28 people—those that they have found of the dead from the past few days of fighting; and many more are thought to be lying around the city—have been buried in the hospital gardens because they haven’t been able to leave the hospital with the bodies and the morgue has run out of space.


MARK COLVIN: Our Middle East correspondent, Tim Palmer, in Bethlehem.


And it is worth noting, yet again, that the ABC has an exclusive network of foreign correspondents in the region, and we’re the only Australian network so to do.