The pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran church and orphanage in Beit Jala and the children in his care are waiting nervously to see whether a fragile Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire will hold.

For three days, fighting raged in and around the church, where 45 Palestinian children huddled for safety. Early in the morning on August 28, the Israeli army invaded the church compound as they fought with Palestinian militants. The forces withdrew early in the morning on August 30 in the face of international condemnation.

At the height of the fighting, the pastor, Jadallah Shihadeh, conducted media interviews, while outside the building Palestinians fired guns and threw homemade bombs at Israeli troops, who responded with tank and machine-gun fire.

"We couldn't sleep for days," said the pastor, who faced a threatened walkout by frightened staff. "The children were terrified. All of us we were terrified and we have lost our nerves."

Observing a temporary cease-fire, Israeli troops withdrew from Beit Jala. Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer warned that he would order his forces back into the town if Palestinian attacks resumed on the nearby Jewish neighbourhood of Gilo, built on land annexed by Israel from the West Bank.

But Shihadeh said that even if this happened, he would stay to protect the children, who are both Christian and Muslim. "Whatever happens, it is my responsibility as a pastor to stay with the children," he said. "They are Palestinian children, they lost their parents. They come from a very, very difficult situation."

He said that Israel had misjudged the situation badly by entering Beit Jala. All that Palestinians desired was their own state, he said, in which they could live in peace side-by-side with the Jewish ...

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