BETHLEHEM, West Bank, April 9 — For 20 brief minutes this afternoon, the small, sun-dappled square beside Fawaghreh Arch in this ancient city teemed with life and resentment.
Young Palestinian men stepped out of their homes in defiance of a 24-hour Israeli curfew, smoked cigarettes and talked of revenge. Women opened their front doors, blinked in the sunshine and complained about shortages of food and medicine. Boys, giddy at the chance to venture outside, scurried around heaps of rotting trash and crushed automobiles and vowed to join "the resistance."
Without warning, the boys scattered, their mothers shuttered their doors and the young men disappeared. An Israeli Army patrol appeared on a nearby street. The only thing lingering in the square was the resentment.
"They will have their day," Muhammad Sacca had said of the Israelis before he, too, vanished. "I think their blood is going to be shed."
After a week of Israeli occupation, what Palestinians are whispering in the moments they feel safe enough to emerge into the narrow stone streets are warnings — grim predictions that Ariel Sharon's military offensive in the West Bank is only radicalizing moderate Palestinians.
"I was married to a Jew; I have a daughter with her," said Saleh Muhammad, one of the young Palestinians gathered near the arch named after the first Muslims to settle here. "I sympathize with the innocent people who died on the other side."
But he and other Palestinians said the Israeli offenses branded all Palestinians with the same label — terrorist. "Why do I have to suffer the consequences for something I have nothing to do with?" Mr. Muhammad asked. "They come and put punishment on all the people. This is completely insane."
For the last week, an Israeli-Palestinian standoff has been playing out 200 yards from Mr. Muhammad's home. Israeli officials say suspected terrorists are hiding among 200 Palestinians holed up inside the Church of the Nativity, the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. The Palestinians inside say they are local officials and police officers simply trying to survive an Israeli onslaught.
The standoff persisted today without major incident, but residents of Bethlehem's Old Town made clear its effects on moderates, the one Palestinian group that has till now accepted Israel's right to exist. Christians and Muslims, laborers and professionals, all assailed the Israeli occupation of their town and predicted deepening alienation.
"In every house in Bethlehem there is a story today," said Professor Manuel Hassassian, executive vice president of Bethlehem University. "There is a narrative, and people are not going to forget them."
Among those people, perhaps, is Miriam Fawaghreh, who railed against the Israeli-imposed curfew, now in its fifth day. "I am a diabetic, I have high blood pressure, I don't have insulin," said Mrs. Fawaghreh, 60, adding that her 65-year-old husband was also out of medication. "He has asthma and he has ulcers."
The current West Bank incursion is the fourth by Israeli forces in this area, but it is by far the largest. Israeli forces have not occupied Bethlehem itself since they withdrew from the West Bank in 1995. Professor Hassassian and other residents said Israeli soldiers and snipers were firing on unarmed civilians, crushing cars and destroying homes during searches. Palestinians say that 15 civilians have been killed and scores injured.
Israeli officials say that their forces have shown restraint and that more than 100 suspected terrorists have been arrested. Bombs and booby-trapped cars have been discovered, they said, including one device in a sewer near the Church of the Nativity.
Heavy damage can be seen in the Old Town. Armored personnel carriers have gouged out the narrow stone lanes where tourists once meandered.
Throughout the afternoon, gunfire and the roar of armored vehicles filled the streets. At 6 p.m., just after church bells rang and mosques issued the call to prayer, shots rang out again. And the night was punctuated by single, intermittent gunshots, possibly from snipers. Mr. Saleh, the Palestinian who married an Israeli, took a moderate position when describing their relationship, saying it collapsed for personal, not political, reasons. But as he stood in front of a destroyed electrical transformer and mounds of rotting garbage swarmed by flies, he was a hard-liner about his estranged wife's countrymen. "They did not come here to look for wanted people," he said. "They are here to destroy us."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company