THE MIDDLE East war, a nationalist conflict detonated by a feud between Islam and Judaism over sacred sites, moved deep into the heartland of Christianity yesterday when Israel's tanks advanced to within a mile from Christ's birthplace.
Bethlehem, once the destination for millions of pilgrims and tourists, became the latest killing field in this conflict, a fire that has burnt away around the city's edges for months, but yesterday was creeping towards its centre.
For hours, Israeli tanks and snipers duelled with Palestinian paramilitaries across a landscape that is regarded as the home of one of the holiest places in Christianity, whose Christmas mythology has made the city into a by-word for calmness and serenity. But Bethlehem has long ceased being a "little town" and is rarely "still" or "silent" these days.
And never less so than now. By nightfall, three Palestinians were reported killed, and three Israeli soldiers wounded.
The thumps and crashes of war rang out loudly, even within the thick stone walls of the Church of the Nativity, the 4th-century church that stands over a grotto marking the cave where Christ is supposed to have been born. Yesterday afternoon, it was guarded by a group of Palestinian gunmen - mostly Muslims from Yasser Arafat's paramilitary Fatah group, but some Christians too - sitting next to their Kalishnikovs rifles on the cobble stones, a few yards from the church door.
The gunmen were weary, having spent most of the night on watch duty, in case the Israeli forces came into view. They also seemed depressed. They grumbled that their automatic weapons were nothing compared with the mighty arsenal of Israel's army. As the men spoke, their foes delivered a reminder of their military superiority by unleashing a couple of tank shells not far away.
The men were also angry. On Thursday night - only hours after the state funeral of Rechavam Zeevi, the 75-year-old ultra-nationalist Tourism Minister murdered in Jerusalem by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - Israel had exacted revenge by assassinating Atef Abayet, the head of the military wing of Bethlehem's Fatah branch, and two others. News reports said they died in a "mysterious car explosion". But, although Israel did not admit to this assassination, it looked likely to be the work of one of its death squads.
Mr Abayet had been the gunmen's boss, and they took it personally. "We will avenge his death," Nasser Labayet, 28, quietly declared.
They had endured a bad night, made sleepless by the shooting and the sound of Israeli Apache helicopters.
Shortly after Mr Abayat's killing, Palestinian fighters had fired guns and mortars across the valley from Beit Jala - an Arab- Christian town on Bethlehem's north-western edge - towards the Jewish settlement of Gilo, just south of Jerusalem.
Israel portrays such attacks as tantamount to an assault on what it regards as its capital city. In August, the Prime Minister and ex- army general, Ariel Sharon, responded by sending in the army, which held part of Beit Jala for two days and then withdrew after extracting an agreement from the Palestinians that there would be no more shooting. …