- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

BETHLEHEM, West Bank Bethlehem bloomed briefly yesterday morning, with families racing to buy groceries and visit friends during a three-hour break in the curfew that has been in place for five weeks.

Children chased each other down narrow cobblestone alleys while their parents, emboldened by reports that the standoff in the Church of the Nativity was near an end, converged on a hastily assembled greens market near Manger Square. Israeli tanks began pulling back from the church Sunday evening as negotiations neared a climax.

"Humdalellah," or "Thanks to God," they called to each other over mounds of local tomatoes, cucumbers and leafy chickpea branches. "Soon this will be over."

A curfew linked to the siege at the Church of the Nativity has imprisoned Bethlehemites in their homes, shattered the economy and shut down schools and businesses for more than a month.

"I have not been out of my home in 34 days," said a woman named Mary, whose bedroom window boasts a view of the steps of the bell tower at the sacred church. She said Israeli soldiers occupying the shop next door had kept her awake all night with their loud voices and heavy boots.

At the sight of the Church of the Nativity as she opened metal shutters that have been closed for five weeks, she sighed, "I used to love living near the church."

Mary was alone, surrounded by Christian images and icons in her two spare rooms. But her neighbor, a boisterous young woman with four children, said there had been as many as 16 people in her house during the siege.

"It was awful," she said. "So many of us, and so little space. No television. No one knew what was happening."

Although the curfew has been lifted for a few hours at a time at least once a week, the nurse's assistant said she had been too frightened to leave the house. If neighbors had not dropped off a box of food from time to time, she said, "I would have starved."

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