BEIT JALA, West Bank - A Coloradan volunteer cowered for a night with a family of Palestinians in the back bedroom of their home, as Israeli machine-gun fire and tank shelling resounded.
Blinking in the bright sunlight the next morning, Ronald Forthofer said the cowering was the reason for his presence.
Forthofer, 57, is one of 70 volunteers who say their bodies may serve as human shields to protect Palestinians in this small hilltop town just east of Jerusalem, battered by 10 months of gunfights and Israeli tank shelling.
Ronald Forthofer, left, of Longmont, Colorado, surveys the damage to buildings in Beit Jalla, near Bethlehem, Wednesday Aug. 1, 2001. Forthofer is one of 70 international volunteers who believe that their bodies will serve as human shields to protect the Palestinians living in the small hilltop town of Beit Jalla, battered by 10 months of gunfights and Israeli tank shelling. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)
Forthofer left Longmont, Colo., and came to live in a Palestinian house this week in one of the hottest points of fighting.
''We believe that we who are protected in America should experience and live in the same way that Palestinians are living in the suffering,'' Forthofer said as he looked across the valley at an Israeli Army outpost guarding Gilo, an Israeli neighborhood on disputed land.
Nighttime gun battles have often lit up the valley between Beit Jala and Gilo. Palestinians take up positions around Beit Jala houses and open fire on the Jewish apartment buildings across the valley, and draw return fire from the Israeli military.
Palestinians consider Gilo to be an illegal settlement on West Bank land. Israel says it is part of Jerusalem, and claims the whole city as its own, including the Arab section.
Forthofer is one of 20 Americans from the Episcopal Church who came on a peace mission and began living in Palestinian homes this week. Among the other volunteers are Europeans, Japanese and Israeli peace activists.
They've gotten a taste of what life is like here. On Tuesday night, for example, fighting between Gilo and Beit Jala raged after an Israeli helicopter missile strike killed eight Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus.
Brenda Holliday, 60, from Orange County, California, rested in a home that had been hit by several bullets overnight. She said that no part of the house was safe, and that the children wake up frightened.
''If children live under this kind of oppression ... a vicious cycle will be repeated,'' she said. ''The child who was oppressed will become the adult doing the oppressing.''
At a news conference yesterday, the volunteers called on the international community to intervene ''to cease active support of Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.''
An Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman, Shlomo Dror, called the group's presence in Beit Jala a provocation.
''Why are they putting themselves as a human shield in Beit Jala, not in Gilo?'' he said. ''We know they are there because they have a point of view against Israel.''
Copyright 2001 Associated Press