Matthew Kalman ContributorAOL News
With its fine stone carvings, sweeping balconies and soaring arches, the three-story, 16,000-square-foot house stood on a promontory with commanding views across the valley from Bethlehem to the southern Jerusalem suburb of Gilo.
But in 2000, before its owner had even moved in, the opulent building was used as a snipers' nest by Palestinian gunmen and shelled to pieces by Israeli tanks. For nearly a decade, the ravaged beauty has stood abandoned in silent testimony to the brutal violence that engulfed this lazy town for years on end.
Now Palestinian and Israeli security chiefs are helping the millionaire owner rebuild the building. Some find grounds for optimism in the fact that a site that epitomizes the intifada is being restored with the quiet blessing of the gunmen and soldiers who brought about its destruction.
The Palestinian Authority is providing an armed guard of a dozen policemen every night to guard the site until a sophisticated electronic security system can be installed. And the commander of Israeli army's local Etzion Brigade, Col. Eran Markov, made a rare entrance into Palestinian-controlled territory to visit the site one recent morning and see how work was proceeding.
"It is a symbol of hope," said Fakhri Ghneim, a friend and business partner of Abu Zgheibreh who is supervising the 40 workers on the five-month, million-dollar repair program on behalf of the absent landlord. "We ask for peace. We pray for peace. We want to live in peace. We have had enough of living in terror. It will be good for both Palestinians and Israelis."
When the intifada uprising erupted in the autumn of 2000, the house was still bare on the inside and Abu Zgheibreh was away in Panama tending to his business interests. Taking advantage of its strategic position, Fatah gunmen sneaked inside and began shooting at the houses in Gilo, just half a mile away. At first they used their Palestinian police-issue Kalashnikov AK-47 semi-automatics and stolen Israeli army M-16s, but they caught the Israelis unawares when one night they began firing with two heavy machine-guns -- a belt-fed Browning M2 .50-caliber and a Russian-made BKC.
It was the first time that Jerusalem had come under sustained attack since the 1967 war. The Israeli army responded with tank shells and heavy machine-gun fire from three directions. The Israeli fire smashed in the roof, punched holes in the walls, destroyed many of the second-floor balconies and shattered most of the hand-carved stonework around the windows. An anti-sniper wall was hastily erected across the southern edge of Gilo to keep the residents safe. It was only taken down a few weeks ago.
For the residents of Beit Jala, the intifada was a catastrophe. Though Muslims had become a majority in Beit Jala and neighboring Bethlehem, the town's original Christian inhabitants generally wanted no part in the uprising and its suicide bombings. Many of the town's residents had close personal and business ties in Jerusalem, which the intifada brought to an end.
One of those who lost his business as a result was Fakhri Ghneim. "I have a quarry in Gilo, just over there," he told AOL News, pointing at the nearby Israeli neighborhood. "Now it's forbidden for me to enter Jerusalem. I haven't seen it for 10 years."
Abu Atef, a leader of the Fatah shabab ("youth") gunmen who later joined the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, told AOL News that they actually stopped shooting from the house itself after a few days because it was too dangerous, but they managed to draw the returning Israeli fire back to the palace again and again. As a result, none of the gunmen were killed inside the house, although several were hit nearby. He said it became a rite of passage for the most daring gunmen to take their turn behind the M2. Among those who gained their spurs in the nightly gun battles were at least three members of the Abayat family, the shabab leaders. Two were later killed in attacks by the Israeli army. Another is serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison.
Several residents of Beit Jala were killed in the firefights sparked by the gunmen, but the neighbors always divided the blame between the Israeli army and the Fatah fighters who had invaded their quiet neighborhood.
"The first time we came to shoot, the neighbors were OK, but after their houses began to be damaged from the Israeli tanks, people became very angry and tried to push us to another area to shoot," Abu Atef admits. "They didn't give us any help, not even a drink of water when the guys were thirsty. Even now they don't like us."
He said he welcomed Abu Zgheibreh's imminent return to the newly renovated palace as a natural development, but saw it as a sign that the sacrifices made by him and his friends had passed into history.
"They forgot the shabab," said Abu Atef. "They forgot the intifada, everything. Now the Palestinian Authority and Israel have cleaned everything out. All the weapons are gone. Does it mean there'll be peace? Maybe."