In the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, a caged Palestinian teenager listened to Israeli gunfire echo against ancient stones last night, and boasted that he was ready for martyrdom.
"Whatever happens over here is going to make history," said Bassem Abu Odeh, 17, trapped for a second day inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. He said he was a student but as many as 200 Palestinian gunmen have taken sanctuary in the church, huddled on the cold stone floor with some two dozen priests. They have had no food since Wednesday.
"Either there will be a political solution or the Israelis will come inside the church, and there will be a massacre," he said, with the pop of gunfire audible on the mobile phone line.
Yesterday's events at Manger Square - punctuated by an explosion that blew the southern door off the church and heightened fears the Israeli army would storm the sanctuary - threatened an apocalyptic finish to a day which left the army in control of all but one Palestinian town in the West Bank.
Smoke rises over the Palestinian controlled city of Nablus after Israeli Apache helicopter gunship fired missiles April 5, 2002. At least nine Palestinians were killed in overnight fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin, Palestinian security officials and witnesses said on Friday. Photo by Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters
A bellringer who tried to flee the church was shot dead by an Israeli sniper, and as night set in there was no resolution of the standoff at one of Christianity's holiest sites.
The Israeli army accelerated its offensive against Palestinian towns and cities, thrusting into Hebron and killing a border policeman, even as President George Bush called for a withdrawal.
The intervention came amid deepening fears that the war could spill beyond the Jewish state and the occupied Palestinian territories as Hizbullah guerrillas fired rockets across Israel's northern frontiers for a third day.
At least 70 Palestinians have been killed in the week since tanks slammed into Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah, and the army began its sweep across the West Bank, Israel Radio said yesterday. By evening, only the desert town of Jericho remained untouched.
Much of the offensive has taken place beyond view. The Israeli army has banned journalists from approaching Manger Square, and yesterday expelled the crew of the Arabic language al-Jazeera television from Ramallah, and shot at journalists' cars.
The soldiers have also fired on emergency vehicles, blocking a Red Cross relief convoy to Ramallah hospital yesterday.
In Bethlehem and Nablus, corpses lay uncollected for hours, and Israeli tanks crushed four ambulances in the town of Tulkaram.
Against the tide of international opinion, the army chief, General Shaul Mofaz, said his soldiers needed four more weeks to consolidate the offensive, and another month to mop up the Palestinian suicide bombers who are the stated target for the onslaught.
In Nablus, the staging ground for many of the suicide attacks against Israel, hundreds of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles moved into position outside three refugee camps. "They were shelling non-stop last night from 9pm until 5.30 this morning," said Amer Abdel Hadi, director of a local radio station.
Troops took over the governor's compound and an-Najah university, and set up snipers' nests on tall buildings, consolidating their hold before launching the house-to-house searches already under way in Ramallah, Qalqiliya, Tulkaram and Bethlehem.
Nablus, however, is an entirely different proposition. The city's refugee camps have a long history of militancy, and are the birthplace of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a military offshoot of Mr Arafat's Fatah organization which has led attacks against Israel in recent weeks.
Israeli forces met heavy resistance as they thrust into the town, killing at least five people.
Street battles raged in the northern town of Jenin, with Israeli helicopter gunships strafing an adjacent refugee camp, killing three Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers.
"We are expecting the worst," said Mr Abdel Hadi. "The Israelis have been saying for a very long time that Nablus has many people on its wanted listed, and that many suicide bombers come from Nablus. They call it the head of the snake."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002