Under the snipers' bullets

<em>Middle East Crisis</em> - Lilian Pizzichini gets little chance to make peace as she joins a non-

There is a large, handwritten sign on the fence that lines the road leading from Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport to the West Bank city of Bethlehem. It stands just by the checkpoint, and reads: "You cannot sit on a fence in the Holy Land." It was the morning of Easter Saturday, and I was on my way to Bethlehem to join the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-based organisation that invites foreigners into the occupied territories to participate in what they call "non-violent actions".

These include demonstrations, visits to refugee camps, and helping to plant crops in the villages that are overlooked by Jewish settlers. The ultimate aim is to encourage Palestinians to protest against the occupation peacefully. It attracts a mixed crowd of dreadlocked peace activists, sober human-rights lawyers, and students from Bradford and Sussex.

Our first non-violent action took place on Easter Monday and involved a peaceful march from Bethlehem to the nearby town of Beit Jala. Geography is important here - not just the parched slopes of hills and valleys filled with olive groves, but the political demarcations that split the landscape. Bethlehem is in Zone A, as designated by the Oslo Agreement. This means that it is under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. A 20-minute walk away, Beit Jala is in Zone B. This means that it is under the administration jointly of Israel and the Authority. All that is meaningless now.

By the time we had reached Beit Jala's town centre, we had been joined by a contingent from the Italian peace group YaBasta! and some nice, middle-aged types from Belgium. Around 150 of us were walking in silence when we saw two Israel Defence Force (IDF) armed personnel vehicles.

Along with Kunle Ibidun, a Glaswegian computer whizz-kid of Nigerian descent, I was appointed negotiator. It was my job to tell the soldiers, in a friendly manner, that we would like to visit some families in the town who have been unable to leave their houses for two weeks.

I didn't get very far. As I took my first tentative steps towards peacemaking, the Israeli soldier fired two rounds of live ammunition at my feet. This is the first time the IDF has used real bullets in front of foreigners. Seven people were hit by shrapnel, including Kunle, Aisa, a Japanese girl studying in Bradford, and an Australian woman, who was hit in the stomach. That night, the invasion began.

Some of us ended up at the Bethlehem Star Hotel, down a steep hill from Manger Square, where the worst of the fighting is. The writer and entertainer Jeremy Hardy and foreign journalists are also there, surrounded by tanks. Electricity and water have been cut off; food is running out.

I'm lucky. The novelist Nicholas Blincoe, his Palestinian wife Leila, her 60-year-old mother Raisa - who had persuaded me to join them here - and I are under siege in Raisa's house off the Hebron Road as it leads out of Bethlehem. From the living-room window, I can see two hills separated by a deep valley. The town centre of Beit Jala (part of the Bethlehem district) spreads across one hill. The controversial Jewish settlement of Gilo sits on the mount of its neighbour. Snipers from both sides are taking pot-shots at each other. Echoes rebound through the valleys, and I can hear the loud boom of shelling from tanks as they work their way up the hill towards Beit Jala.

The night of 1 April, I was kept awake by the ear-shattering sound of supersonic jets and the whirring of Apache helicopters. Guns and shells continued the next night, and I have just seen images on Bethlehem TV of Israeli soldiers moving into residents' houses in Bethlehem and transferring the occupants into churches. At least in Bethlehem, the shelling seems to have stopped. Now the fighting is down to militiamen from the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and IDF soldiers.

Much of Bethlehem is in rubble, water is gushing from pipes into the streets. The curfew has been lifted. Because the IDF has isolated the militants in Manger Square, we feel it is safe to enter Bethlehem city. I don't know what we'll find when we get there, but I'm beginning to understand what it must be like to be a Palestinian.