(Note: The Rev Sandra Olewine is a Methodist minister based in Jerusalem. Peace, R)
Almost exactly 24 hours after the Israeli army withdrew from the
center of Bethlehem on early Sunday morning, they returned. I awoke
at 03:45 this morning, with adrenaline pumping through my body. I
was having a dream - or maybe it was a nightmare - in which the
Israelis were returning to Bethlehem. Unable to go back to sleep, I
went to the living room to watch some television. Within 15 minutes,
I could hear gunfire in the area. For the next hour, every 10 or 15
minutes I could hear shooting. I realized, then, that I wasn't
I dozed off and on, but when I awoke at 6 am and there were no cars
on the street, I was sure Bethlehem was under curfew again. By 7:00
am I began calling people to figure out what was happening.
Sure enough, the whole Bethlehem area was again under curfew –
Beit Jala, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, El Khader, and Doha. Everyone was
forbidden to move to the street. The army came in relatively quietly
this time. According to reports, they took up positions outside of
the main churches in Bethlehem and the hospital in Beit Jala first,
before they began house to house searches, blocking those places as
points of refuge.
I looked out my kitchen window and could see one large tank sitting
near the corner, its turret pointed diagonally across the street.
Again, there are tanks at most major intersections and near the
Church of the Nativity and Christmas Lutheran Church. In some
neighborhoods, friends are reporting that they are taking many young
men out. Some get sent back and others not. Some are blindfolded
and others not.
Almost every phone conversation I've had today has contained the
question, "how long do you think they'll stay?" The Israeli reports
only say `as long as it takes.' To say that people are beside
themselves doesn't even begin to describe what folks are feeling.
They are fed up. One friend said to me, "Why don't they just
completely occupy the cities again. Then at least we could move.
The children could go to school. We'll walk under their tanks if
we have to."
But, of course, the Israeli government has no desire to completely
reoccupy Palestinian areas. Then they would have to accept
responsibility for education, health and some type of social system
again. Frankly, the cost is not something they are willing to bear.
These short-term incursions, in and out, of the main Palestinian
areas, allows the illusion to exist that there is still such a thing
as Palestinian autonomous areas, removing any sense of Israeli
responsibility for the well-being of the Palestinian people. Of
course, with these incursions, there is no way for schools to operate
normally. There is no way for health care systems to operate well.
There is no way for any economic support to take hold. There is no
way for families to have a sense of normalcy or security.
In fact, the only thing these incursions allow for is the deepening
of resentment, the building of frustration, the growth of anger. As
every security report has said throughout the last 20 months –
whether by Israeli or international experts – the Israeli military
operations do little more than nurture the seeds of hate which lead
to suicide attacks against Israelis. There is no way for Palestinian
security to operate in these conditions. There is no way for
anything to operate in these conditions.
As I listen to tank shells exploding nearby, I can only hope that
people again find the strength to hold on, to hold out, to keep their
spirits alive. Then, maybe they'll still have some humanity
intact when the world finally understands their suffering and moves
decisively to end this chaos.
Rev. Sandra Olewine
United Methodist Liaison, Jerusalem
This morning, like all the other residents of Bethlehem, and all those people who travel here daily to work or study, I prepared myself to go to work at the start of another week. I was just mentally planning out my day when the phone rang and I was informed that a curfew had been announced and the Israelis had reentered the town in the early hours of the morning. This was soon confirmed by first one, then another, then yet another wave of tanks passing close to my house, and the announcement being broadcast around the streets that Bethlehem was now a closed military zone and it was forbidden to be on the streets. This is the second such incursion in 48 hours. On Saturday evening, around 8pm the helicopters started circling over Bethlehem, signaling an imminent invasion. Shortly afterwards the tanks entered and headed for the old town where they destroyed a house and terrorized the neighborhood before withdrawing in the early hours of Sunday morning. As I write this, another group of tanks is entering and now I have lost count of how many I have seen, but it is at least 15, not counting those that came in before dawn. According to Israeli newspaper sources this morning, the IDF has surrounded the Church of the Nativity saying that they want to prevent militants escaping to it again.
If you stop to think of the implications of this sort of unprovoked action (and I hope you do) then it becomes difficult to understand how it can possibly contribute to increased security for Israeli society. This is of course the explanation that is given for any action that is taken against the Palestinian civilian population. Today, as an example, all those people who left their homes very early this morning in order to reach Bethlehem to work or study would have had to turn back at some point in their journey. These days, journeys, between Palestinian towns are far from easy and straightforward. So, having wasted time, energy and money (the cost of transportation has soared because of all the obstacles) as well as having lost another days work or study, what kind of attitude do they expect people to have.
There is a really sinister picture emerging when you look at all the small pieces and try to fit them together. These "lightening incursions" as the IDF terms them totally disrupt daily life and make it impossible to plan any activity whether it be economic, educational or recreational. It is a way of keeping absolute control, coupled with inflicting humiliation on the entire population. Additionally, a plan has been released which divides the West bank into 8 cantonments, one for each of the major towns - Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya. The intention is that Palestinians who want to travel from one town (in their own territory!) to another must apply for a permit from the Israelis. The permits are valid for one month only, for travel between the hours of 5am and 7pm. Without a permit it is not possible to cross the checkpoint at Kalandia (near Ramallah) and at other checkpoints people are being told to go and apply for permits. The amount of information publicized about these permits has, however been kept to a minimum and to add insult to injury, the Israeli spokesperson who was approached by a journalist for information was told that the permits were designed to ease the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Some organizations are refusing to comply with this on the grounds that it is likely to become a permanent requirement and also because it is yet another example of Israel stepping outside the boundaries of its domain of control, and the parameters of international law. I know a number of people, primarily health professionals who have decided that the alternatives to using the checkpoints - dangerous journeys on the decreasing number of available backroads - is simply not worth it in time and stress levels and have reluctantly applied for permits. It poses a real dilemma and is yet another example of the lose - lose situation that is the only option proffered by the government of the "man of peace" and the "most moral army in the world". Some Israeli journalists have been quite outspoken about this, likening the permits to the pass laws in South Africa, and of course the word apartheid is and has been used a lot in relation to the behavior of Sharon's government. There is an excellent article by Amira Hass on the cantonments issue, available on the Ha'aaretz website www. haaretzdaily.com On the same site there is also an article describing the effect of the incursions and curfews on Palestinian universities.
The encirclement of Bethlehem with razor wire looks to be almost complete. It is a very ugly sight as you approach the checkpoint, and even more so as you look to Beit Jala. The checkpoint is ugly anyway and the few attempts made some time ago to prettify it have long been destroyed. It is now very much a military post. The trench and the wire continue up the hill towards the top of Beit Jala. I wonder what the people who own the olive grove will do when harvesting time comes as the wire neatly bisects it making one half totally inaccessible. In order for this to happen, and also to ensure more visibility from the checkpoint, the restaurant and the stone factories on the road to the checkpoint have been completely leveled by bulldozers. Not only the buildings, but also everything inside them was destroyed.
Talking of the checkpoint, it is worth mentioning the current situation with regard to entering and leaving Bethlehem. It is a nightmare, and totally unpredictable. You never know whether it will take two hours to pass, or a few minutes. For me, I am usually confident that even if it takes time, they will not stop me either from going to Jerusalem or returning to Bethlehem but Palestinians do not have that luxury. Even in my case, I know that the checkpoint can be closed any time so there is always a sense of anxiety when returning. It has also become quite dangerous. The soldiers are nervous and likely to shoot if you make the wrong move, and they are not always clear in their signals. Now you have to wait so far back from the soldiers that it is not always easy to see whether they are beckoning you to come or saying stop. I have reluctantly become rather polite in my dealings with them. This does not come easily, especially after being kept waiting for a long time or being treated with arrogance or contempt, but whereas before I had no compunction about expressing my feelings of anger and frustration, I am exercising restraint these days. However, my experience is nothing compared to that suffered by people who are walking across the checkpoint. They also have to wait some distance from the soldier who checks their papers, and while waiting they are guarded and harassed by other soldiers. It is extremely humiliating and not surprising that many people are choosing not to be subjected to this. The intention, as well as demonstrating mastery is also I am sure to limit the number of people moving from place to place.
Now the F16s have arrived. I don't think they are going to drop any bombs, rather it is just an exercise in keeping the population in a state of anxiety, and of course in showing who is the master here.
No-one has any idea for how long this current incursion will last. They may leave in a few hours or they may stay for longer (we hope not another 40 days!). It almost doesn't matter because the damage is in the disruption to people's daily life and routine, making everything unpredictable and dependent on the whims of the Israeli government. It is a situation of total disempowerment and as such makes Israel's position in relation to its security even more precarious. It is impossible to understand how that is not seen as a crucial factor that is the impetus and ongoing support for operations against Israeli citizens.
Barbara Lavin in Bethlehem area via Gill Dye of ABCD