So who won this battle?
The classic answer is: the winner is the side which remains on the battlefield after the fighting is over. By this measure, the Palestinians won.
But this was not an ordinary battle, and this is not an ordinary war, but rather the armed uprising of a conquered people against the conqueror, so the rules are quite different.
It would be better to apply the test of objectives. What was the objective of the invasion of Beit-Jala? Was it achieved?
The objective was to put an end to the shooting at Gilo. That failed altogether. After the IDF occupied a part of Beit-Jala, Gilo suffered machine-gun and mortar fire from Bethlehem, which lies beyond Beit-Jala, thus making Beit-Jala irrelevant.
True, the withdrawal took place after an understanding on a cease-fire was achieved. But everybody knows this understanding is not worth the paper it was not written on. First, because it was not achieved in a face-to-face meeting and was not written down. Second, when all the Palestinian territories have turned into a red-hot pressure-cooker, no Palestinian leader can possibly promise a real cease-fire. A small group of fighters is sufficient to renew the firing. And any incident é the assassination of a Palestinian leader, the killing of Palestinians somewhere else é will be enough to push such a group into action.
If so, why did Sharon decide to withdraw his forces? Why did he ask his henchman, Shimon Peres, to supply a pretext for the retreat?
Very simple: after the force “conquered” Beit-Jala, Sharon suddenly realized that he had got himself into a trap. By opening machine-gun and mortar fire from Bethlehem, the Palestinians invited the IDF to enter the holy town, whose name evokes a profound echo in the hearts of every Christian in the world. That is just what Sharon doesn’t need: pictures of Israeli tanks in front of the Church of Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Sharon had to choose between invading Bethlehem and leaving Beit-Jala. He decided to withdraw in the darkness of night. From now on he will take care not to enter the same trap again and this will practically give the Palestinians a free hand to shoot from Beit-Jala. The operation, like ,amy others, achieved the opposite of its objective.
That’s generally what happens when a colonial army tries to suppress a popular uprising. It is enough to look at the young face of the new chief of the Fatah forces in the Bethlehem area. The Israeli Chief-of-Staff, General Mofaz (in his triple capacity as prosecutor, judge and executioner) “liquidated” the former chief, a quite moderate person. His place was taken by a much bolder and more energetic youngster. Conclusion: When one assassinates a leader, his place does not remain empty. It will be filled by a younger, more extreme fighter.
The invasion itself took place without a battle, from which a stupid commander may draw the conclusion that one can invade any place without resistance. That could prove a costly mistake. In 1975, a Syrian armored column entered the town of Sidon (Saida) in Lebanon in order to destroy the PLO. The column was badly hit in the streets. The next invasion of a Palestinian town by the Israeli army, or the one after the next, or the one after that one, will be met by roadblocks and armed guerilla resistance. The suicide bombers, who are trying now to blow themselves up in discotheques, will blow themselves up under the tanks. It’s only a matter of time.
The question remains: why Gilo? Why does this neighborhood, of all places, draw fire?
Well, for those who do not know: exactly 31 years ago, on August 30, 1970, the Israeli government expropriated 2700 dunams of private land from Beit-Jala, Beit-Tsafafa and Sharafat for “public purposes”. Only a small part of the land was ostensibly acquired with money, generally it was acquired by counterfeiting documents or by straw-men posing as Arabs. Some of the owners petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, but to no avail. The Gilo neighborhood was established on this land.
The inhabitants of Beit-Jala consider Gilo a settlement sitting on their land. At Camp-David there seemed to be a chance that the Palestinians might agree to give up Gilo and the other Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem in return for all the Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem being returned to the future Palestinian state. Ehud Barak aborted the idea.
An Israeli general said on television: “Gilo is a part of our capital. Would the British have tolerated shooting at London?” To which the answer could be: “If the British were to annex Belfast to the London municipal area, the IRA would probably shoot at it, too.”