BEIT JALA, West Bank - To this Christian Arab village of limestone villas and fruit gardens, the Israeli army has brought the threat of armored vehicles - reaction to attacks on a nearby Jewish neighborhood on the edge of Jerusalem.
But at the same time, the village is exposed to another new element: human shields.
About 50 foreign men and women arrived earlier this month in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala, a symbolic frontline in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it lies across a valley from the Jewish community of Gilo.
The foreign peace activists have come under the banner of an International Solidarity Movement in the hope their presence here will protect the Palestinians from Israeli fire. They were drawn by opposition to Israel's occupation of areas in the West Bank and Gaza, which dates to the 1967 Middle East War.
Israeli officials call the Westerners pawns and accuse the Palestinians of exposing foreigners to mortal danger. Government spokesperson Ra'anan Gissin said Israel would strike at Beit Jala if deemed necessary, regardless of the Westerners' presence.
''These people are being used as a propaganda machine for the Palestinian Authority,'' he said.
As well as shielding the residents of Beit Jala, the volunteers, among them Britons, Americans, Italian, French and Danish have been standing at army checkpoints, observing the soldiers' behavior towards Palestinian civilians. They also have tried to create a safe platform on which Palestinians can demonstrate without using violence.
On Aug 10 a non-violent gathering turned sour when seven of the foreigners and three Palestinians were arrested. They were protesting the recent Israeli take-over of the Orient House which serves as the unofficial Palestinian headquarters in Arab east Jerusalem.
British born Angie Zelter was among those detained. The 50-year-old Potter from Norfolk, England, said she was peacefully demonstrating when her group was beaten with batons, bungled into a police van and taken away for questioning. At the police station she bore witness to the beating of Palestinians, an act that normally goes unregistered.
''My friends were verbally abused, beaten about head and neck, and left with severe bruising,'' she said.
Zelter, who married a Jew, came to Beit Jala to show solidarity with the Palestinians and to do what she says the foreign governments should be doing.
''We are here to witness human rights abuses,'' she said. ''Palestinians are subjected to daily humiliation by an occupying force and protection has been denied them.''
Liz Khan has left two children behind in London to spend time with the people of Beit Jala. She has spent several nights in their bullet ridden frontline homes and witnessed the impact of Israeli shelling. Since the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began last September, at least 850 Beit Jala homes have been damaged by Israeli fire.
Khan supports the idea of an international observer force in the region and says the British government should lead the way in condemning human rights abuses against Palestinians.
''The world needs to see what is going on,'' she said.
Jim Davis, 28, a graduate student from New Jersey has come here during his holidays and is shocked by what he has seen. He said the Americans in Beit Jala feel accountable for what is happening to the Palestinians.
''We feel responsible for the billions of U.S. dollars (in foreign aid) which America is paying to finance the occupation, and we want that to stop,'' he said.
In what was perhaps their most dramatic gesture against occupation, the group traveled to the West Bank village of Al-Khader on Aug 16 to remove an Israeli roadblock made of rocks and skeleton bus frames. The roadblock deprived villagers' access to their fields.
Protected by the human shield of foreigners, an 11-year-old boy driving a JCB digger pushed the stones to the side. The other Palestinian villagers looked on in disbelief while Israeli soldiers watched from a nearby hill.
The euphoria was short-lived, however, when the Israelis returned and re-erected the roadblock early next morning.
But Israel is coming under increased pressure to accept international observers as the eleven-month uprising against occupation continues. Israel has so far rejected the presence of such observers.
In the meantime, the foreign peace activists seem willing to risk their lives in Beit Jala while Israeli officials warned their safety could not be guaranteed.
''They put themselves in the firing zone,'' Gissin said. ''They have chosen the wrong side but if that's where they chose to be, they will have to take care of themselves.''
Copyright © 2001 IPS