Israelis accuse Arafat of trying to involve Christian world
By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

        JERUSALEM (CNS) -- The Israelis accused Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of placing snipers in the Christian village of Beit Jalla to drag the Christian world into the conflict.
        But Palestinian leaders denied the accusation, saying Israel is trying to divide Arab Christians and Muslims Israeli Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland said in an Oct. 25 statement that Palestinians use ``buildings in Beit Jalla as cover for attacks on Jerusalem. The gunmen position themselves near churches, with the hope that Israel's response will damage a church, thus setting the Christian
world against Israel. This is a cynical and deliberate method to involve a population that is not interested in conflict.''

        In an opinion piece, Yediot Ahronot journalist Ron Shaked wrote: ``Arafat chose to fire on Jerusalem specifically from the Christian town of Beit Jalla in an attempt to pull yet another element into the chaos: the Christian world. The Palestinian chairman wants to place Israel at odds with the Christian world in an attempt to drag the Vatican and the entire Western, Christian world into the conflict.''
        Relations between Beit Jalla, a relatively affluent village neighboring Bethlehem, and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, where the shots are aimed, have traditionally been quiet even during the fiercest days of the ``intifadah.'' Palestinians consider Gilo to be a settlement because it was built on confiscated Palestinian land, while Israelis see it as a neighborhood of Jerusalem.

        According to a report in the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Palestinian security officials informed the Israeli army that they were taking a ``series of actions'' in Beit Jalla in an attempt to prevent people from shooting at Gilo. The report said the Palestinian officials had arrested a number of people who had taken part in the shooting and had imposed a nighttime curfew on the village.
They asked the Israelis to refrain from responding with tank fire, said the article.

        Ma'ariv, another Hebrew daily, cautioned in an editorial that ``massive firing at Bethlehem's Christian suburb is liable to arouse the Christian world against us,'' and warned: ``This is exactly what the Palestinians are striving for.
        ``Barak and the heads of the security establishment are now caught between a rock and a hard place: Continue to abandon a Jerusalem neighborhood to opportunistic shooting or order a forceful response that could very much worsen Israel's international standing,'' they wrote. ``The Palestinians are laying a trap for us in Beit Jalla ... there may be no choice but to enter it.''

        But the chancellor of the Latin-rite Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Father Raed Abusahlia, rejected the Israeli arguments.
        ``The recent Israeli rumor about getting the town of Beit Jalla involved in the recent clashes is not a coincidence, but aims to `divide and rule' among the one Palestinian people,'' Father Abusahlia said.

        The Palestinian Legislative Council member for the Beit Jalla area, Bishara Daoud, said: ``These are rumors which Israel is creating ... to create a division between our communities. Our families as Palestinian Christians and Muslims are staying in our houses, defending our homes and land against the war Barak and Israel are waging against civilians.''

        Meanwhile, a front-page Jerusalem Post article Oct. 25 reported an alleged exodus of ``hundreds of Christian residents'' from Gaza, Nablus, Ramallah, Tulkaram and Bethlehem to locations abroad with the assistance of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and foreign embassies. According to the report, a small number of Muslim families had also left.

        But Father Abusahlia said in a statement he was surprised to read the report and said after conducting its own research, the
patriarchate concluded the story contained ``fabricated information.''
He said no foreign diplomats reported any ``intervention to help Christian families to flee the Palestinian authorities.'' The chancellor said he wondered how the Israeli Foreign Ministrycould be helping Palestinian Christian families to leave while they
claim a strict closure on the territories, refusing to grant even workers permits to enter Israel and Jerusalem.

        Christian clergy in Ramallah, including Father Ibrahim Hijazin, parish priest in Ramallah, sent a letter to the Arabic press in which they denied the Jerusalem Post allegations and said they could assure that ``not one Christian family'' has left the Palestinian Territories.
        However, some clergy said they had heard people speaking of the possibility of leaving, especially the youth, who saw no future for themselves under the current conditions.
        ``It is almost customary whenever we face any troubles that some of our Christian families do immediately think of leaving the country. That's why our percentage is going down, but I don't know of any Christian families leaving now,'' said one clergyman who asked that his name not be used.