Balanced on the rooftop of St. Vincent’s Church, the statue of the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched, has served for more than 100 years as a graceful symbol of divine protection over the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
But hours before U.S. envoy Anthony C. Zinni arrived here Thursday, a predawn gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian militias transformed the statue into a poignant reminder of the devastating violence he is trying to quell.
The Virgin’s nose was lopped off, as was her left hand and all but one finger of her right hand, when an Israeli tank shell slammed into the church’s stone roof. Shrapnel from the shell punched holes in the statue’s robes and blew up the floodlights that had illuminated it. The army said the shell hit the church by accident.
The statue’s maiming was an inauspicious start to a day that saw at least nine Palestinians and three Israelis die before Zinni, the retired Marine Corps general turned would-be peacemaker, arrived here on his third attempt to quell what is now 17 1/2 months of fighting.
Palestinian gunmen in Bethlehem shot dead two men who they said had helped Israeli security forces kill militia leader Atef Abeiyat. They dragged the two bloodied bodies behind a car and then tried to string them up across from the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. Palestinian police officers stopped them.
In other violence, Palestinians blew up their second Merkava tank in a month, on a road leading to a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, killing three Israeli soldiers. A coalition of militias claimed responsibility for the attack.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Israeli snipers shot dead four Palestinian militants. Another Palestinian died of wounds he sustained in earlier fighting with troops.
An Israeli helicopter gunship fired into a car near the West Bank town of Tulkarm, killing two Palestinian militants, one of them an explosives expert the army accused of assisting in a string of attacks on Israelis.
When Israel two weeks ago launched its largest military campaign in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 1967 Middle East War, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his goal was to hit the Palestinians so hard they would have to agree to a cease-fire. Commentators here have speculated that he ordered the army to seize Palestinian-controlled areas as bargaining chips in negotiations after Zinni’s arrival.
Troops and tanks withdrew from Ramallah, the most important Palestinian city, late Thursday night after Zinni dined with Sharon. Zinni brought with him a demand from the Bush administration that Israel pull out completely from the Palestinian-controlled territories as a prelude to a cease-fire.
An army spokesman said Israel also pulled out of the centers of Kalkilya and Tulkarm, and from a Gaza Strip village that the army entered Thursday. But troops and tanks were still blockading all the major cities and towns of the West Bank, and remained inside Bethlehem.
The Israeli government has said it is eager to achieve a cease-fire but has warned that it will do “whatever necessary” to defend its citizens.
“Let there be no misunderstanding,” Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said on Israel Radio. “Zinni or no Zinni, if there is no cessation of terror, not only will we not decrease our activity, but we will increase it.”
But Nabil abu Rudaineh, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, vowed Thursday that Palestinians won’t participate in talks if Israel’s campaign continues.
“There won’t be . . . any meetings with any Israelis until they stop their aggression and withdraw from all the cities, including Bethlehem and Ramallah and cities in Gaza,” he said.
Thursday’s bloodshed virtually ensured a fresh round of retaliation and revenge.
Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who was scheduled to hold talks with Zinni and the Israelis on restoring security cooperation, told Israel Radio that suicide attacks are acts of self-defense and warned Israelis that whoever harms civilians should expect a similar response.
Thousands of Palestinians turned out Thursday for the funeral of Mutasen Hammad, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia that is linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement. He was killed earlier in the day when Israeli gunships fired on his car near Tulkarm. In a statement, the army said Hammad was targeted because he had manufactured bombs and explosives belts used by suicide bombers.
Israel’s killing in January of Raed Karmi, another Al Aqsa leader from Tulkarm, touched off a firestorm of Palestinian revenge attacks that buried efforts to achieve a cease-fire.
In Washington, the State Department called on Israel to pull out completely from Palestinian-controlled areas as Zinni’s effort began. Sharon’s order for the withdrawal from Ramallah came three days after more than 100 tanks drove into the city in what the army said was an effort to crush the “infrastructure of terrorism” there.
But Palestinians were skeptical that Israel would fully withdraw.
In a statement issued after Sharon announced the pullout, but before tanks began to move, the Palestinian Authority charged that Israel is “reinforcing its presence inside Ramallah, and its snipers are carrying out more acts of killings and assassinations in the streets of Ramallah indiscriminately.”
In Bethlehem, bits of stone blasted from the roof when the Israeli tank shell hit littered the steps outside St. Vincent’s Thursday afternoon. The statue, visible for miles around, now looks from a distance as if it has been charred, an effect created by shrapnel from the tank shell stripping large patches of white paint away and revealing the black metal beneath.
Inside the empty church, workers have placed the Virgin’s left hand and four of the fingers from her right hand on the altar.
In a statement, the Israeli army said that one of its tanks fired toward the roof of a Bethlehem University building but hit the church, which stands in front of the university.
The church is part of a compound that includes the Holy Family maternity hospital and an orphanage. Workers said Thursday that the shooting started around midnight and lasted for nearly three hours. They said they moved women who were in labor or had just delivered their babies into hallways to ensure their safety while Palestinian gunmen traded fire with troops in the streets outside.
The army said it regretted the damage to the statue. Soldiers, the statement said, were given maps of holy sites in Bethlehem before tanks moved into the southern end of town Thursday morning. They were told that it was “forbidden to fire on or enter” those locations, including the university building.
“The [army] regrets this incident, and the brigade commander will take disciplinary measures against those responsible,” the statement said.