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PALESTINIANS FLOCK TO CENTER TO FIND HEALING

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Shepherds Field, where according to legend the angels announced Jesus' birth, looks bizarrely tranquil for the violence-gripped West Bank.

It is to this pastoral hill near Bethlehem that hundreds of Palestinian Intifada veterans are flocking to soothe psychological wounds earned while being held in Israel's jails.Shepherds Field, now a small Christian village known in Arabic as Beit Sahour, houses a unique rehabilitation and counseling center for Palestinian ex-detainees.

"We help people who have been injured, tormented during the Intifada, who were brutalized in prison, to overcome the post-traumatic stress disorders," explains director Rifat Odeh Kassis.

Some 5,000 Palestinian prisoners were freed by Israel under last year's Oslo agreement with the PLO. Beit Sahour's $1 million rehabilitation program is financed by the Australian government and, indirectly, by the European Union, as part of the $2.4 billion international aid package to the Palestinian territories.

Says Australian Red Cross representative Wayne Murray, "This project is about helping people who have problems with fitting back into society, interacting with their peers."

Many of Beit Sahour's ex-detainees have spent their entire adult lives throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers and cars and possess next to no work skills.

"The prisoners come out with very high expectations and are initially feted as heroes. But after a while they are forgotten, unemployed and full of frustration against the peace process," says Kassis.

The Beit Sahour center itself is by no means uncontroversial. Established by the Palestinian YMCA in 1987 and financed by international donations since mid-1994, it has been repeatedly raided by Israeli security forces.

"The Israelis thought of us as a warrior recycling program,"' explains Kassis.

Kassis, a leader of the Palestinian Lutheran Church, was accused of nationalist activities and spent a total of 12 months in Israel's Ansar 3 administrative detention camp between 1988 and 1991. Most of the center's therapists are ex-prisoners.

Beit Sahour's own staffers don't hide their skepticism about the psychological therapy's long-term effects as long as the Israeli military occupation and the economic decay continue.