BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- Israeli tanks moved aside and
Palestinian gunmen laid down their weapons for a few hours Tuesday
to allow a rare plea for peace to be heard in the traditional
birthplace of Jesus.
``God of peace, give our land peace,'' thousands of Palestinians
sang as they walked from an Israeli checkpoint to the Church of the
Nativity on Manger Square, led by Pope John Paul II's envoy to the
Holy Land and several Christian bishops.
The mostly Christian marchers, some waving Palestinian flags or
the banner of the Vatican, passed through the battle-scarred
streets of Bethlehem. Some chanted political slogans such as
``Sharon, Sharon, hear, hear, Bethlehem is an Arab city'' -- a
reference to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The pope's envoy, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, said the
Christian-organized procession was meant to appeal to reason. ``It
is a demonstration against violence and wars and in favor of peace,
just peace, secure peace, which is best for the Palestinians and
for the Israelis,'' he said.
The Bethlehem area has been hard-hit by fighting, with 11
Palestinians killed in six days. It is one of six West Bank towns
Israeli tanks have entered in response to the assassination of an
Israeli Cabinet minister by Palestinian militants.
Bethlehem's Holy Family Hospital, a maternity hospital and
orphanage run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent, came
under fire overnight. Nobody was injured.
Nuns said three Israeli tank shells hit the laundry room and an
empty guest house. An Israeli army spokesman, Lt. Col. Olivier
Rafovitch, denied that claim and said the damage could have been
caused by a Palestinian rocket or rifle grenade.
A reporter visiting the compound saw large holes in a wall that
could have been made by a tank shell or another large projectile.
Several windows, including a stained-glass window in a chapel, were
shattered by bullets.
Sister Munira Jabali said the firefight lasted for seven hours,
and that 60 children in the orphanage were moved into the hallways
``Sister Sophie carried the children to the hallway,'' said
6-year-old orphan Assad Atly. ``All the children were crying, and I
The Palestinians have accused Israeli troops of firing
indiscriminately, without regard for civilians. Twenty-eight
Palestinians, most of them civilians, and an Israeli motorist have
been killed in the fighting since Israel moved into the West Bank
towns after Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi's killing Oct. 17.
Israel has said it is targeting suspected militants who it said
often use civilians as human shields. Israel has also accused
Palestinian gunmen of firing from near churches in hopes of drawing
return fire that would damage church property and put Israel at
odds with the Christian world.
Over the weekend, a 19-year-old Palestinian was shot and killed
as he emerged from the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus'
traditional birth grotto. Palestinian witnesses said he was killed
by Israeli fire, a claim Israel denied.
On Tuesday, the peace procession ended near the Church of the
Nativity, at St. Catherine's Church, with thousands packing the
shrine for prayers, among them many Muslims.
At the altar, the bishops representing major denominations --
Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenia, Anglican, Coptic -- were
joined by a senior Muslim clergyman. All held hands in prayer.
``I feel very moved by this procession,'' said a Bethlehem car
mechanic, Samir Qumsieh, 43, who attended with his 7-year-old
daughter. ``It gives meaning to peace and living in freedom.''