The Latin Patriarch in the Holy Land has called on Israel to stop its troops firing at an Arab Christian village and to surrender all occupied land to the Palestinians.

Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the highest-ranking Catholic official in Jerusalem, made the appeal during a tour of Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem on the West Bank.

Beit Jalla has been subject to Israeli tank fire since Palestinian gunmen began using the village as a base to fire at Gilo, a neighboring Jewish suburb of Jerusalem. Gilo is built on land annexed by Israel following the 1967 Middle East war.

Archbishop Sabbah said that Israel must not react by increasing levels of firepower.

The patriarch was accompanied by Beit Jalla's mayor, Raji Zeidan, who said the Palestinian Authority was working to restrain gunmen from using his village to fire at Gilo.

Zeidan also criticized Israel for using heavy fire against Beit Jalla, saying it was making victims of residents who took no part in the violence. "No shots came from the houses that were bombed [by Israel]," he said. "There are other ways to deal with that matter."

About 130 people, most of them Palestinians, have died in violent clashes with Israeli security forces that began on September 28. Israeli officials claim that the Palestinians fired from Beit Jalla hoping that Israeli tanks, returning fire, would damage a church in the village, thereby igniting the wrath of the Christian world, including the Vatican.

But Archbishop Sabbah, the first Palestinian to serve as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said it was Israel that must ease tensions by giving up territory to the Palestinians. "This is the only salvation, also for Israel itself to convert all of its neighbors to friends," he said. "As along as they have enemies, they will be afraid, they will have no security."

He said Israel must end its military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, the areas captured by Israel during the 1967 war.

The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has claimed that all of the territories are necessary for the founding of an independent Palestinian state.

Archbishop Sabbah urged both sides to return to the negotiating table.

Peace talks have stalled since the peace summit at Camp David in the United States in July between Chairman Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, failed to produce an agreement. The two leaders met again in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, again under the patronage of US President Bill Clinton, whose dream of brokering a comprehensive peace in the Middle East during his last months in office has now been shattered.

Archbishop Sabbah denied claims that the violence was pitting Palestinian Christians against the much larger majority of Palestinian Muslims.

Two weeks ago, several hundred Palestinians, led by Islamic militants, set fire to a hotel and some Christian-run stores in the Gaza Strip, saying it was a violation of Muslim law to sell alcohol. Archbishop Sabbah said that the mob was condemned even by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Christian leaders have also angrily denied reports claiming that hundreds of Christian Arab families have been fleeing the region with the assistance of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and various embassies.

Father Raed Abushalia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, dismissed the claims as a "fabrication." The Arab Christian community in the Palestinian territories is an integral part of the Palestinian people," he said. "It suffers with it, rejoices with it, [shares] the same hopes and aspirations ... these recent Israeli rumors about getting the town of Beit Jalla involved in the recent clashes is not a coincidence, but [part of the] aim to 'divide and rule' among one Palestinian people."

Copyright © 2000 ENI

Related Elsewhere

Yesterday on the heels of rumors of resumed peace talks (Peres and Arafat to talk peace—The Age), Israel struck Arafat's headquarters. Read more from The Australian and The Los Angeles Times.

Other media coverage of the conflict includes:

Blood flows again on Jerusalem streets—The Guardian (October 31, 2000)

CNN Reporter Among Wounded, U.S. Forces on Heightened Alert—The Washington Post (October 31, 2000)

Israeli helicopters hit Arafat's offices Killing of two Israelis in, around Jerusalem bring swift retaliation—USA Today (October 31, 2000)