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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 15:15 GMT
Troubled town of Bethlehem
Israeli troops in Bethlehem
Israel forces fanned out through the town before dawn
The Israeli army's pre-dawn raid on Bethlehem marks the latest stage in centuries of conflict over a town revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.

The incursion may signal the failure of a confidence-building plan agreed in August, whereby Israel would withdraw town by town from Palestinian areas it had occupied in exchange for the Palestinian Authority clamping down on militants.

Israeli troops last left Bethlehem in August after a four-month occupation that included a 39-day siege of the Church of the Nativity designed to flush out Palestinian militants seeking refuge there.

The standoff ended with the militants going into exile from the West Bank, leaving the church essentially unharmed.

Located on Bethlehem's Manger Square, eight kilometres (five miles) from Jerusalem, the church is built over a grotto where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus.

For centuries, it has been one of the most fought-over holy places.

Bethlehem lies just eight kilometres (five miles) from Jerusalem
It is first mentioned in the Bible as being near the tomb of Rachel, Jacob's wife, and is later named as the home of Ruth, a grandmother of King David.

But Bethlehem achieved its greatest importance when three of the four Gospels named it as the birthplace of Jesus.

The site has been venerated by Christians since St Justin Martyr identified it as the site of Jesus' birth in the second century.

Pagan to Christian to Muslim

In 135, the Roman Emperor Hadrian built a shrine to the pagan god Adonis on the traditional site of the nativity, but less than two centuries later, the Emperor Constantine built a church there.

Bethlehem's history
315-333: Emperor Constantine builds Church of the Nativity
1099-1187: Christian Crusaders control Bethlehem
1571-1922: Ottoman Empire rules region
1922-1948: British mandate
1948-1967: Ruled by Jordan
1967-1995: Under Israeli control
Dec. 1995: Palestinian Authority takes control of West Bank
Justinian rebuilt and expanded the Church of the Nativity in the 6th century, but Bethlehem was captured by Muslim Arabs soon after.

It was held for nearly a century by Christian Crusaders in the 12th century before returning to Muslim control, under which it has stayed for much of the rest of its history.

The two brief exceptions were the British Mandate period after World War I and 28 years of Israeli control after the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Palestinian Authority was given control over Bethlehem in December 1995, when Israeli troops pulled out.

Now a town of about 32,000 - predominantly Christian Arabs - Bethlehem relied on tourism for its income until the latest Palestinian uprising began in 2000, frightening off many potential pilgrims.

Floor plan for the Church of the Nativity

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22 Nov 02 | Middle East
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