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Israeli children wary in sandbagged classrooms
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- When sandbags were stacked outside the windows of her fourth-grade classroom a few days ago, Maya Engel breathed easier.
"We don't need to feel scared now," the nine-year-old Israeli schoolgirl said Thursday during class in Gilo, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Gilo, a Jewish settlement on occupied land and regarded by Israel as a Jerusalem neighborhood, has been hit almost nightly -- and occasionally during the day -- by gunfire from the nearby Palestinian village of Beit Jala in the West Bank.
After nightfall Wednesday, Palestinian gunners peppered buildings on Gilo's exposed ridge and one or two apartment blocks rising behind for four hours non-stop, children at Gilo Bet elementary school and other residents told Reuters.
There was plenty of return fire from an Israeli army encampment that was hewed out of the stony hillside beneath Gilo's tawny stone apartment buildings a few weeks ago.
A 68-year-old German man married to a Palestinian was killed in Beit Jala Wednesday during a helicopter gunship attack.
"When the shooting began last night, I just went inside from the balcony to watch TV. We shouldn't be scared because we have a good army," Maya said during a geography lesson as fellow pupils clamored to answer the teacher's questions.
But the constant fusillades from Beit Jala, a mainly Christian Arab village with which Gilo residents said they had good relations for decades, have been traumatizing.
"Every morning after these nights of shooting, we ask the kids living close to the ridge how they coped and they pour their hearts out to us," said Maya's teacher, Yehudit Mezrachi.
"Although the sandbags help protect us, the atmosphere is wrong now -- they block the windows so the air gets very stuffy here. The kids' attention span is slipping, because we never know when shooting will begin."
Stapled to a bulletin board in the corridor are Israeli newspaper clippings and photographs of Gilo under gunfire and of hooded Palestinian gunmen said to be responsible.
"It's like living in a ghetto," blares a tabloid headline.
Nine-year-old Eliran Zerael said his little brother was playing in their apartment block's garden recently when bullets started whistling in from Beit Jala. "I ran out of the house and threw myself over him and we hugged the ground," Eliran said.
"Now whenever the shooting starts up, we just crawl under tables or into rooms away from our windows."
A row of 10-foot-high cement slabs was erected along part of Gilo's curving ridge line recently to deflect gunfire, recalling makeshift barriers that warded off Serb snipers during the 1992-95 siege of Bosnia's capital Sarajevo.
Gunbattles here at night resemble the close-quarter neighborhood warfare in Sarajevo, with machine guns clattering and tracer fire streaking back and forth across the valley.
"The shooting went on over four hours nonstop last night until an IDF (Israeli army) helicopter swooped in -- I watched from my balcony -- and fired a missile straight at that villa over there, from which the terrorists were pounding us," said Yehuda, a local businessman, pointing at a large red-tile roof house with all its windows blown out and insides charred.
He was among dozens of residents, friends and relatives from elsewhere who gathered along the ridge for a look on a peaceful morning afterwards. Not a shot was heard and Israeli soldiers on the ridge seemed nonchalant, not even wearing flak jackets.
About 200 French Jews spilled out of several buses and pointed cameras at Beit Jala, lending a vague atmosphere of war tourism. But Gilo residents said the breezy, sun-splashed calm was deceiving.
"The shooting was so relentless last night that this morning I took my wife and nine-month-old daughter down to Tel Aviv to stay with my mother. I've just come back now to check things," said Moshe Aliau, 33, an electrician.
Some residents said the trouble began only after Palestinian Muslim gunmen moved into Beit Jala.
"It was mainly a Christian Arab village before and the Christians there sometimes phone the army or police on our side now to warn us that the Muslims are about to start shooting," Yehuda said while showing visiting Norwegian friends the scene.
Most people in Gilo felt the Israeli army should dispense with its "policy of restraint" to silence Beit Jala's gunners.
"You see those soldiers down there? They could take out Beit Jala in 10 minutes if given the word," said Shaul Vardi, a no-nonsense veteran of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
"What is Beit Jala? A mere village. I was in Lebanon in 1982 and we cut a swath through a whole country in days. But our authorities don't stand tough any more. The Americans won't let them. But enough is enough. It can't go on like this."
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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