BETHLEHEM DIARY

Toine van Teeffelen
November 27 – December 4, þ2000

Friday night Mary’s father, Abou Hannah, passed away. He was seriously ill for a few weeks, but we expected that his illness would last for at least some months more. Under the circumstances, all are happy that he did not suffer.
 

The next day, Mary’s brother Hannah (Abou Hannah means the father of Hannah), and sisters Norma and Rita, married with partners who come from various parts of the world, come over from Paris where they live. After the shock of his death, the reunification of the family is the next intensely emotional moment. All cry upon arrival. It is sad for a family to meet at a moment of loss.

The following days the burial and mourning are arranged according to custom. For three days, visitors pass by the house in which one room is reserved for the men and another for the women. During the day of burial, one of the neighbours offers their house for hosting the male part of the family. I enquire why this is so. It concerns a community building practise shared by almost all Christian denominations and also by Moslems. Another neighbour, Abou Bendi, explains that the neighbour offering hospitality should come from Bethlehem town. He himself, although also a close neighbour, is a refugee from Ramleh, and would therefore not even consider offering hospitality. During the waiting period before going to church, we drink strong black coffee without sugar, which is in fact an effective non-alcoholic drink for fighting a depressive mood. At lunchtime, “kiddreh” is served, a customary meal during a mourning period, which consists of spiced rice and chicken or lamb meat. The neighbours take care of food and drinks during the first day.

During the brief mass in St Catherine’s Church, the Catholic part of the Church of Nativity, the coffin lies open, and the closest family kiss Abou Hannah’s forehead to say farewell for the last time. Many people attend the mass, including Mary’s colleagues and all the Brothers of Bethlehem University. Afterwards the men carry the open coffin to the cemetery, where the male attendants pay condolences to the nearest family. For the next days, many hundreds of people pass by, including members of the larger “hamula” (extended family). Some cousins and an uncle of Mary work at Bethlehem municipality; their acquaintances and professional contacts also pay a visit. The visitors stay for about half an hour, and leave when a next round of visitors arrive. Never in my life I shook so many hands. Some of the older visitors obviously gained experience in quickly shaking hands along a row of people. The younger ones pass by to fill and to remove small coffee cups, in the Bedouin fashion, which they too do with a certain rhythm and skill. The talk is lively. It is clear that those with authority gain the attention of all. A souvenir shop owner and member of the municipality tells about his traveling difficulties despite having three passports. Of course the talk is largely about the political situation. On Monday morning, the visitors relay the heavy shooting in Bethlehem itself between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers near Rachel’s Tomb. The day before, soldiers and settlers injured more than twenty Palestinians in a village to the south of Bethlehem, and gunmen apparently took revenge by starting to shoot at Rachel’s Tomb, a traditional flashpoint. For our family from Paris it was their first “baptism” into the sound of shooting and shelling. This time it came dangerously close; the shooting entered even our street. The water tanks on the roof of our opposite neighbours were shot. Some of the visitors, too, tell about the damage on their roofs.
 

While talking with the visitors I try to reconstruct Abou Hannah’s life which I largely know but not in all its details. Abou Hannah’s real name is Abdallah Morcos. “Abdallah” means “servant of God” while the Morcos family name derives from St Mark, the Gospel writer. The family traces its distant origins back to Yemen, where some Arab tribes were baptized in the first centuries after Christ, possibly due to evangelizing activities by St Mark’s followers who might have traveled from Alexandria in Egypt southwards to the Arabian Peninsula.

 Abou Hannah was born in 1917 just a few days after the Balfour Declaration was issued. In that declaration, the then British Minister of Foreign Affairs promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine under the condition that the rights of what were euphemistically called the “non-Jewish” citizens would not be infringed. Abou Hannah’s life thus spanned the whole conflict in Palestine, the end of which he did not live long enough to witness.

Surprisingly, he was born not in Palestine but Chile. During the second half of the 19th century, many Christian Bethlehemites acquired a good knowledge of languages and made international contacts through the Christian missionary schools and institutions then established in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The making of Holy Land products flourished, especially olive wood sculptures and mother-of-pearl products. Some of the more adventurous businessmen started to establish export markets in the Catholic Latin-American countries, and emigrated. They sometimes did so under the pressure of the deteriorating circumstances in Palestine before and during the First World War when young people tried to escape recruitment into the Turkish army. During his first years Abou Hannah grew up in Santiago de Chile. The young kid was brought back to Palestine by his mother and uncle, while his father, for business purposes, stayed in Chile where he died shortly afterwards.

 During the 1930s Abou Hannah married with Emily Salman (a name derived from “Suleiman” or “Solomon”). They enjoyed their honeymoon in Jericho, a winter resort where people at the time used to watch horse races. He was fortunate enough to find work in a cafeteria of the British Mandate army, in a garrison in the southern part of Jerusalem. There he acquired his life-long admiration for British organization and discipline. The British time was comparably favorable from an economic point of view, especially during the 1940s, yet very insecure politically, with the continuous disturbances between Arabs and immigrating Jews. After 1948, the Jordanian time was the opposite, politically stable but economically difficult. In that Jordanian period, traveling was remarkably easy for Abou Hannah and his family. While the inhabitants of the West Bank now have difficulty to leave their town or village, he and his wife went freely to Damascus and Beirut to buy fashionable clothes there, just in one day. For Palestinian youth now, Damascus and Beirut are like light years away, cities only familiar from TV.
 

Abou Hannah first worked in a Bethlehem grocery and later in a garage for car spare parts so as to be able to take care of his family. Shortly after the 1967 war, his son Hannah left for France, and after he established himself there, Norma and Rita followed. Like so many other Bethlehemite families, the family lives with one leg in the East, and with another in the West. Not only physically, but also mentally. I see in the many family discussions an East-West dialogue going on. Perhaps it is no chance that so many Christian Palestinians work in communicative professions. Hannah is director of the Arabic section of Radio Monte Carlo in Paris, which is a major radio station in the Middle East and valued for its objective reporting. Among other things, Norma is a film director whose film “The Veiled Hope” about Palestinian women still circulates at film festivals. Rita used to work as an Arabic-French teacher, while Mary is librarian and curator of Bethlehem University’s new heritage center which caters for university students and school children as well as tourists.

Emigrating or not emigrating has always been an issue for Bethlehemites and for Christian Palestinians. With so many contacts abroad, emigration is a real option. The political and economic stagnation brings young people at the brink of despair, and many of them look for the right opportunity to leave. Nowadays, the disastrous circumstances in Palestine further affect people’s morale. Last week we heard of a Palestinian family who left their house in Beit Jala for another house in the same environment. After shelling came close once again, they moved to Ramallah where their house was damaged by shooting. Now they live in Canada. Fuad remarks that it is at present comparatively easy for Palestinian Christians to get a visa to the United States and especially Canada. Is this out of solidarity or a tactic to get Palestinians out of their country?, he asks. Our neighbour, who works at a European consulate, tells how her European colleagues ask, almost encourage, her to leave. She responded that if at one point in her life she decides to leave Palestine, she wants to do that out of her own free will and not as a refugee. She asked her employer to do more to stop Israel from making Palestine an unsafe place.

 Foreigners, too, are canvassing their options. This Sunday Karishma joined in a demonstration of foreign women living in the Bethlehem area to show solidarity with Palestinians. The past weeks foreign embassies and consulates contacted their nationals with the sole purpose of arranging their evacuation. Both in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem expatriates now demand a more supportive stand of the consulates and embassies towards their nationals, who indeed are, or can be, “monitors” and can thus fulfill a useful role which is in fact demanded by the international community.
 

I myself am busy to renew my expired work permit. When I came here some six years ago, I used to leave the country every three month to Jordan for getting a tourist visa. These years I apply for a half-yearly work permit. For this I first visit the Palestinian Ministry of Civic Affairs in Ramallah who contact the Israeli Civil Administration for a work permit which is issued by the State of Israel. After receiving the work permit, I go to the Palestinian Ministry of Interior Affairs for the visa. They contact the Israeli Ministry of Interior which issues the Israeli visa, printed in Hebrew and English. The only difference with the situation under Israeli occupation some eight years ago is that now the client has to pay double visa fees, one fee for Israel, and another fee for the Palestinian Authority.  Still to do so is cheaper and less time-consuming than a three-monthly return trip to Jordan.

 Upon my new work permit request last week, the Palestinian Ministry told me that they did not have contacts with the Israeli Civil Administration anymore. They could not help me. Why not submitting the request directly to the Israelis? A good idea indeed, why to have all these circumventions when it is after all the Israeli authorities who issue the work permit and visa? I contact “Beit Il,” the Jewish settlement in which the Israeli Civil Administration is housed. A spokesperson there tells me that it is true that there are presently no transactions with the Palestinian Authority but that the Authority never formally asked for stopping the contacts. As long as that is the case, it was impossible for him to deal with my submission directly. He suggested me – “informally” - to cross the bridge to Jordan for renewal of the visa. That was what so many foreigners were doing. Later on I hear that this is a risky option since it seems to happen that at the bridge between the West Bank and Jordan one gets a visa for only one week in order “to regulate one’s legal status.” I call the staff at the Palestinian Ministry once again who checks out with their Minister if there is no way to submit a work application. No new perspectives on the matter. A Catch 22 situation. Next week more.
 

Fortunately, Jara is not at all concerned about permits or even about the shootings. She finds seeing so many visitors at my family in law fascinating and runs from one person to the other. She gives a singing performance in Arabic mingled with some Dutch words in front of the mourners who are cheered up. This morning she picked up her plastic mobile phone, pushed a number, and called “sido” (grandpa), who is traveling “ma’ ‘Issa,” with Jesus. “Bye sido!” she finished gaily. At that moment I once more felt happy that during the last few years in his life, Abou Hannah enjoyed the company of at least one of his grandchildren.

 

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 Years ago, my father told me a story about a man who found snake eggs near his farm. Of course, he began to break these eggs with his feet, but unfortunately the man noticed that the snake was watching him. Immediately, he started to throw stones at it. At last, it disappeared.
 

Three days later, the man noticed that the same snake was watching him from the same place where he had killed its sons. On the fourth day, the man and his sons were found dead on the farm. The doctor who examined the bodies said that the cause of death was snakebite.

At that time, I didn’t realize what my father wanted me to know when he told me that story. But, day-by-day, I was able to know what he meant. The message was that every creature in this universe likes his home and likes his sons and he will not allow anybody to hurt them.” (Sa’dy, aged 16)

 The above passage is taken from an entry to a writing competition for students from all Latin Patriarchate Schools in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Dr. Maria Khoury, Head of the English Department, arranged the competition to enable the students to express their reactions to the current situation. Though each piece differs in content and style, there are common sentiments that recur across the board, whether from Gaza, Bethlehem or Jerusalem. The students consistently blame Ariel Sharon, the right wing Israeli politician, for provoking the current unrest by his visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, whether they describe him as a ‘criminal’, a ‘warmonger’, a ‘terrorist’ or a ‘bloodthirsty pig’. Their condemnation of the killing of 14 year-old Mohammad Al-Durrah, whilst hiding behind an oil drum in the West Bank, is uniform:

“The picture of the killing of Mohammed Al-Durrah is enough evidence of the cruelty and inhumanity of the occupation and its criminal practices against our people as represented by the massacres committed against children, old men and women.”

(Ghada, aged 17)
 

To put it more simply: “What is Mohhamed Al-Durrah’s guilt? Did he do anything or is it just because he is Palestinian?”

 (Sahar, aged 15)
 

The students are vitriolic about the IDF’s use of excessive force, including tanks, apache helicopters, live ammunition and dum-dum bullets (contravening international law) against civilians armed simply with stones:
 

“This Israeli policy is to frighten our people and destroy their will; however, it has promoted our determination, insistence and unity in order to reach freedom.” They justify the Intifada on the grounds that it is “just a continuation of our long struggle and sacrifice for freedom and independence.” (Ghada, aged 17)
 

“Our ambition is self-determination, and it won’t be achieved unless we impose our demands by power and combat.” (Mais, aged 17)

Some of them express their hopes more pessimistically:
 

“Why are our hopes for a better future being choked? And why does Spring promise sunshine only to be crushed by Winter snow? Why do innocent children die? I guess the answer to these questions is the world’s silence to such crimes.” (Mera, aged 17)

However, some are more optimistic: “Peace, which we all seek, has to come from our hearts first. We, the young, can make a difference and change the whole conflict into a historical reconciliation by understanding each other’s views and needs.” (Haneen, aged 16)
 

A barrier to such a future is the inactivity of the international community, whom the Palestinians see as thwarted in their attempts to intervene for peace by the Zionist controlled United States. They cite examples such as Kosovo and Kuwait, and raise their arms in confusion: “Why not help us?!” Their Arab neighbours are seen as “kings sitting on their comfy chairs” who are “unable to stand in front of Israel because they are scared of this monster.” (Maggi, aged 15)

The Western media, also controlled, they believe, by the Zionists, exacerbates international passivity.
 

“The CNN broadcasting and the BBC made you see less victims who died from the Israelis, but they didn’t make you see the martyrs, the damaged houses and the bullets there, and the tanks that at any moment will attack us… and the terrorism of the settlers.”  (Loreen, aged 13)

 There is a serious threat that many of these students will be permanently traumatized by what is going on around them. Already the effects are being seen in school playgrounds, where nursery rhymes are replaced by nationalistic anthems, and fights break out with unnerving regularity. Father Iyad Twal, Headmaster of Bir Zeit Latin Patriarchate School, believes that “the children don’t have any place to go, and all they see on TV is violence, shooting and blood. They get scared easily when they hear any loud sound – they think it’s the Israeli soldiers or the settlers coming to attack them.” In Father Iyad’s school, children as young as five have been throwing stones at one another. When reprimanded, they point out that they are not the only ones throwing stones. In break-time, they play ‘Intifada’. Some of them act as Israeli soldiers, other play the Palestinians. The psychological wounds incurred from the incessant pounding of images of violence and death - on television, in newspapers, and on the posters of martyrs daubed against every wall – may take years to heal:
 

“Last week when my parents went to buy us a few things, a battle started in the village near us, my sisters and I watched a helicopter throwing one of its missiles on the houses, and one house was on fire. The sound of bullets and gunshots were very close to us. My sisters were very frightened: I tried to calm them down, we ‘phoned the neighbours to see what was going on and their answer was that they were attacking us with rockets and bullets and that we must hide in a safe place. I held my sisters, I told them not to worry while tears were in their eyes and we sat on the floor away from the windows. This is not the only fearful memory that I will never forget. Don’t we deserve to have bright and happy memories about our life as teenagers? Don’t we deserve to smile, to listen to music, or to go to parties, and to be free? But how could we? How could we have future without freedom? How could we be happy while seeing our houses demolished, and seeing homeless people, orphans and widows and children dying every day. Is this the price of freedom?” (Rana, aged 14)
 

It is against this background that local community leaders are doing all they can to take the minds of their children off ‘the situation’. Last Sunday, Bir Zeit parish organized a ‘Youth Day’, which involved dances, drama, and a clown-show, choreographed and performed by Western volunteers and local university students. Inappropriate as play-acting in face-paint may seem during the current climate, the aim was simple: get the kids laughing, and make them think about something other than the Intifada. Successful as this attempt may have been, there is still an element of kudos in turning up at class having spent the last afternoon risking your life in front of IDF troops; of street-cred in being able to show off your ‘trophies’ of bullets and missile shells to your classmates.
 

During a class in Ramallah with students aged fifteen, in which we discussed the “situation”, several of the boys produced “rubber” bullets, and insisted on dissecting them in order to show the heavy metal underneath. Another brought out a slingshot, which he uses to dispatch stones at IDF tanks most afternoons. The students were unanimous in their hatred of the Israeli occupation, which they described as “oppressive” and “inhuman”. “My father has to go to Jerusalem to work”, said one, “but the Jews won’t let him. They want us to have no work, and no food. They want us to die.” Even those who make it to Jerusalem are frequently subjected to random searches and, in some cases, physical assault by IDF soldiers. We saw one such incident: the victim was pushed behind a wall in the Old City, and several minutes later he staggered out, blood on his face and clothes, limping from the attack.
 

Such incidents, particularly when they happen to a close friend or relative, harden the resolve of the Palestinian students:

“I had just woken up when I heard in the news about the two brothers of Yaa’bad who were killed in the same day while they were fighting against the fire of the Israelis with the stones of dear Palestine. They were planning to have their weddings together and they had the best wedding ever…they were wedded to the soil of Palestine, and the wedding gift was their pure blood on her dress. Every Palestinian was invited to this wonderful wedding and I was one of them. I was filled with emotions and I wore silence as beautiful dress to the wedding.” (Lana, aged 17)

 During the class, whilst many of them were content for a return to the 1967 borders which would give them Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, many others, sick of persecution and humiliation, proffered the notion of “pushing the Jews into the sea.” However, they didn’t hold out much hope for support from the Arab countries, whom they regarded as passive and cowardly; all, that is, apart from Saddam Hussein. Some of the boys lit up at the mention of the Iraqi leader: “He must send his missiles and destroy Israel”, they declared.
 

Such views are not necessarily representative of the students, many of whom still retain a hope of peaceful co-existence:
 

“Every person hopes to have peace, and especially the Palestinian people, who wish and dream about peace, between them and the Israeli people.” (Laila, aged 15)

However, the longer this conflict continues, the more casualties there are, the more determined and resentful the Palestinian children become. They have little access to Israelis of their own age. The Latin Patriarchate school in Ramallah used to run a programme designed to foster friendships between the two nations; but such a programme is unfeasible in the current climate. So, their experience of Israelis is limited to the soldiers who shoot at their friends, neighbours, and family; and the settlers, who attack them by night. Consequently, they tend to perceive Israeli civilians either as extensions of the “monster” of their armed forces, or with envy: “it’s not fair that while Palestinians are dying and suffering Israelis are having so much fun going to parks and beaches.” (Nida’, aged 14) The inequality in the conflict is not represented merely in the weaponry, but also in the quality of life of the youth. Israeli children tend to live like normal children, but as Mohammed Hassouna, a representative of Fatah at Bir Zeit University says, “Palestinian children have to grow up very quickly. A Palestinian child may look like a child, but inside him is a fully-grown man. This is because of the situation which we are facing every day.” Such a situation is not voluntary; it has been forced on them:

“I want to listen to beautiful music like the usual music, not to the sound of rockets and bullets. I want to watch interesting programs not funerals and programs about martyrs and wounded persons. I want to play in our garden with my brother and sister.” (Rand, aged 14)

 It will be a long time before the Palestinian children can experience the same childhood as their counterparts in the West. A satisfactory peace settlement does not look likely to be engineered overnight. But, until it is, or at least until the Palestinians are granted considerable autonomy over their land, with freedom of access and rights, their children are going to continue playing “Intifada” in the playground, watching violence on the TV, and waking up to the sound of bombs and gunfire in the middle of the night:
 

“The whole of my life as a teenager has changed since the beginning of this war. I can’t just study because whenever I finish school and come home, the Israelis start to throw bombs the whole day and because of these divisions the electricity gets off, so I can’t read and because of the high sound I can’t understand anything. It’s not just me who lives in this feeling and in this case, but also all the Palestinians live it, not just studying, but visiting friends and relatives also. I know that this must happen to protect ourselves and to feel with others. But we must change this routine that started with this war. I think not just the teenagers need that but the whole people need this also.” (Bushra, aged 15)

Several conclusions can be drawn from the views of these children: some are increasingly determined to shake off the occupation, some despair that they will ever be free. In a situation which has moved increasingly away from the religious issues so central at the start, there are very few who find comfort in their faith. Christians wonder why Christian countries like Britain and America do not support them; Muslims wonder why so little was achieved at the recent Islamic summit. Where is the support, these children wonder, from the wider Arab community and the world in general?
 

“The only weapon that is left to bring peace is to keep on praying and hoping with a tearful heart, asking God to make life worth living.” (Rami, 16)
 

The above excerpts are taken from students at the Latin Patriarchate Schools in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 67% of the students in these schools are Christians.
 

By Michael Hirst and Nicholas Jubber, Bir Zeit, Ramallah, 1 December 2000

© Michael Hirst and Nicholas Jubber