Bethlehem's Walls

Pamela Olson
29 September 2004

I taxied up to Bir Zeit University near the end of last month to meet up with Francis, a medical student at San Francisco who is a friend of a Palestinian friend from Stanford. He was in Palestine for a month with a group of med students studying the health care systems in the refugee camps and learning about the situation. He was at the university to meet Maya Nasser, a Palestinian professor and peace activist.

The campus reminded me a little of Stanford. Similar climate, stone buildings, a nice big central plaza, well-groomed students, almost no head scarves in sight.

Before I met up with Francis I found and hung out with Ahmed 2 and watched an impassioned demonstration in solidarity with the hunger striking prisoners. One speaker at the demonstration was in tears, and Ahmed 2 said he planned to begin his hunger strike in solidarity the next day.

I met Francis at the administration building, and he invited me to a conference room where Professor Nasser was speaking. She told a lot of stories, including one time when she was supposed to give a lecture in Jerusalem at 8:00 p.m. in cooperation and solidarity with a group of Israeli peace activists. She applied for a permit to enter Jerusalem to give the lecture, but when her request came back, she saw that she had been given a permit to enter Jerusalem from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. “to buy things.”

She went back to the ministry and said, “No, no, I’m giving a lecture, not buying things, and it’s at 8:00 p.m.”

“Sorry,” they said, “We don’t issue permits for giving lectures. Only for buying things.”

She said she knows people who have been in ‘administrative detention’ (a fancy word for imprisonment without charge or trial) for 11 years, with the three-month detention periods being renewed over and over again. Her son-in-law had also been destroyed by prison.

She wrote a book about her experiences under Occupation, and it was read by quite a number of Israelis. Many of them wrote to her and said that they don’t want to believe what she has to say, and they don’t want to learn that their country is committing ethnic cleansing as slow and excruciating as Chinese water torture. But they do respect her, because she puts herself in Israeli shoes and makes it clear that she respects and understands their fears and concerns. And all she asks is that Israelis understand Palestinian fears and concerns as well.

I wrote the following in my notebook, in admiration of her ability to be calm and understanding and reasonable despite the situation:

“Hard to struggle with yourself to be open-minded and reasonable and set down ironclad proofs when your friends are being shot at. When evidence of the tragedies and atrocities of occupation are daily and all around, which a dry reading of fuzzily-worded laws could never express, when your friends are crying and there’s nothing you can say, when your father is humiliated because he can’t take care of his family’s financial or physical security because he is beaten and threatened and not allowed freedom of movement, and when international law has failed over and over to be implemented in any kind of just way, it is so difficult to think of sitting down and having a rational discussion with someone who has no clue about what is happening and convince them of anything without screaming and crying.”

Bir Zeit bought us lunch, and I talked to a Palestinian guy in the cafeteria who told me that a lot of young Israelis were leaving Israel and refusing to come back. He said, “The youth are starting to think.”

We visited a hospital in Ramallah after that, the same hospital whose parking lot in April of 2002 had been the site of a hastily-dug mass grave.

Ramallah had been under siege for almost a week by April 3, 2002, according to BBC correspondent Barbara Plett. The Israeli army had invaded as part of "Operation Protective Wall" to crush what Israel said was the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, a definition that included Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat.

Soldiers cleaned up pockets of resistance from policemen and militia men, and destroyed the Preventive Security Headquarters, the nerve centre of the Palestinian security apparatus. By the time the fighting had died down, occupation of the city was complete.

People were confined to their homes during the whole operation, and they were starving and going crazy with stress and cabin fever, so a few hours of reprieve was a godsend.

Despite their hunger, the first order of business in Ramallah was not to secure food but to dig a mass grave for the people who had been killed during the five days of siege before curfew began again. They chose the hospital parking lot as the most convenient location, and buried them there temporarily until the Israelis left and the dead could be given a proper burial.

As they worked, several ambulances drove in with sirens blaring, making the most of the few hours of free movement before the tanks returned to block their path. But the Israelis said they needed to check the vehicles for explosives, which virtually shut down the rescue services, leaving many of the sick and injured without treatment.

"For the first 48 hours [of the invasion] we operated every hour, most of the night of Thursday, Friday and Saturday," said Dr Fawzi Salamah, watching as the grave was padded with wooden slats and blankets.

"Then all of a sudden it stopped; there've been no ambulances for the last 48 hours - we've only operated on one injury in that time."

There were 27 bodies: six were collected by families, three were unidentified and 18 others were carried into the car park in white plastic bags smeared with blood.

Palestinians said many were policemen from other West Bank cities or the Gaza Strip, but there were also university students killed as well as visitors stranded by the invasion. One was a woman shot in the neck by a sniper on Tuesday morning just 50 metres from the hospital.

"Make way, make way," the men cried as they heaved the bodies onto their shoulders.

There had been no time to do anything but dig a mass grave, and they had to hurry with their mourning, because curfew was about to begin again.

In the hospital we were given the grand tour by a doctor who had studied in Russia (I’ve been told most doctors in Palestine studied in Russia). In one room he showed us a young boy of 15 or so who had been shot in the arm with live ammunition in Nablus for throwing stones. The doctors in Nablus were afraid they would have to amputate, but he was transferred to Ramallah, where doctors performed a delicate operation that saved his hand. They are unsure if he will ever be able to move it again, though.

The doctor told us there was a new wing devoted entirely to people wounded by Israelis, and he said during invasions it got very messy.

I was supposed to meet Francis again on a Tuesday in a refugee camp near Bethlehem, so I joined some people from my organization on a trip to the region. I never did meet up with Francis, but I had an interesting time nonetheless.

We traveled to Bethlehem first. As we passed the 30-foot-high concrete barrier snaking its way toward Bethlehem, standing there in space like a postmodern nihilist sculpture, heavily foreshortened, a distant line that swerved up into an incontrovertible grey fact on the ground, inching its way inevitably toward the birthplace of Jesus Christ, I got an odd sensation in my stomach, like I was looking bald, unapologetic, un-self-recognized insanity straight in the face. It was sitting there, laughing at me proudly, like a kid who had just set the house on fire. Such a heavy, angular abomination was absurdly out of place in this soft, old, rolling land. I sat there looking out the window in slack-jawed nausea and cold, slow panic that was offset by my complete helplessness.

Nearer to Bethlehem, an officemate pointed out the Gilo settlement, an Israeli stronghold from which Israeli Forces have bombed the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Beit Jalla. Bethlehem is mostly Christian, and Beit Jalla is a wealthy suburb that's almost exclusively Christian. I wonder if the Christian Zionists know Israeli forces have bombed the birthplace of their Savior and are killing innocent people there, including Christians. I wonder if they care.

An astonishing article about Christian Zionists.

Some Excerpts:

Christians' Israel Public Action Committee (CIPAC) lobbies Congress to oppose any limitation on Israel's action, including President Bush's peace proposal, the "road map." Richard Hellman, CIPAC head, recently called on US leaders "to desist from proposing any more plans to settle the Israel-Arab dispute."

Members of Congress in sympathy with the Christian Zionist point of view have taken positions contrary to administration policy, which supports a Palestinian state.

House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, while visiting the area, said, "I don't see occupied territory; I see Israel." Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma said Israel had a right to the land "because God said so."

[Woo, that's my state!]

In a 2002 appearance on Chris Matthews's "Hardball" show, former Rep. Richard Armey (R) of Texas, then House majority leader, proclaimed his support for "transporting" the Palestinians to other countries.

"In Israel, this position is regarded as somewhat like that of the Ku Klux Klan in the US," says Gorenberg. "These American figures are taking positions way to the right of the Israeli mainstream."

"Christian Zionist groups play an increasingly important role," says Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America and a leader of the Jewish lobby, AIPAC. "In many districts where there are very few Jews, the members of the House and Senate are Israel's supporters in part because of the strong Christian Zionist lobby on Capitol Hill."

Other observers say the Bush administration's tilt toward Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute results from a coalition of neoconservatives, the Jewish lobby, and Christian Zionists - with the latter providing the grass-roots political punch as a prime Bush constituency.

We arrived in Bethlehem, and our group spoke and had coffee with a local councilman. He loaded up with us and we went to a village nearby called Nahaleen. We had to go on dusty, rocky roads, and it took ages.

A giant Israeli settlement called Betar Illit was being expanded, and the Hafrada Wall being built right up next to it, bulldozing and stealing Nahaleen in the process.

As we watched one bulldozer work, a man in a white keffiyeh marched up to it and started throwing sizeable rocks at it. The stones bounced harmlessly off the bulletproof glass of the illegal bulldozer, but the driver got out. The man yelled, “This is my land!” The driver, a Druze, said in Arabic, “It’s not my problem, I’m just working.”

A chill of familiarity rolled up my spine. We’d had a debate in high school about how in the world anyone could do what the Nazis did in Germany--how a man could operate the tracks for the trains that would take people to the camps, or shoot old ladies in Vietnam, or crash third-world economies for the sake of a quick buck, or any of the other things we manage to do. We concluded that they probably shrugged and said something like, “It’s not my problem. I’m just trying to make a living and be a good citizen.”

The driver finally turned his bulldozer around and trundled back up to the (illegal Israeli) road, but he or someone else would be there the next day, continuing the inexorable process of dispossession. We left before any soldiers could show up.

On another man’s land, the Israeli construction had caused his water sources to be poisoned and contricted, and he showed off his wilting, rotten green grape vines. He flicked a decayed grape cluster off a nearby vine and said disgustedly, “Wa la wahid.” -- ‘Not even one.’

Near Wadi RaHal, another village in the area, 600 new illegal settlement units had been approved by the U.S., and construction was just beginning on a picturesque forested hilltop.

While we were driving to the next village, we could see that the land on one side of the road, which had been expropriated by a settlement, was green and thriving. On the other side of the road, the land still left to the Palestinians was dusty and barren, all of its water resources having been diverted to the settler land. Settlers use about ten times more of the West Bank's water per capita than Palestinians.

Again, the roads to the village were bumpy and rocky, and we were told that the trip to Bethlehem used to take three minutes on good roads. Now that the good road is closed by the army, it takes 20 minutes on these barely-passable roads. To take a taxi here is now extremely expensive, and some students can’t get to school, and others can’t afford to leave school to visit their families. And then there's shopping, delivery trucks, visiting pals, going to church or to the mosque... inconvenient if not impossible now.

One woman kept offering me drinks in the Wadi RaHal municipality, and my coworker started talking with her. She said that her sister was seven months pregnant with twins when tear gas was thrown in her car at a checkpoint. She had a miscarriage and both babies died.

As we were driving around witnessing these sad horrors, news came over the wire that the hospital in Bethlehem had been invaded, looking for wanted men, and in one of the refugee camps in Nablus, all males between 16 and 40 had been imprisoned. I was too over-stimulated to be angry or sad. I felt shocked and tired.

The next town we visited was called Bateer, and I wrote down its name as a potential site for my future vacation home. It is gorgeous. Built into a steep, green, rocky hillside, like Bcharre, Lebanon, or Eureka Springs, Arkansas, I was so struck by its beauty I couldn’t bear to ask anyone to translate their grievances.

But later I found out that if construction of the Wall continues as planned, Bateer will be completely surrounded and ghettoized like Qalqiliya, and it seems impossible that the village can survive like that.

Back in Bethlehem we stopped by a hunger strike tent in solidarity with the prisoners, and then while Dr. Barghouthi gave another speech, my coworker and I took a break and drank coffee in a clinic nearby. We grabbed shawerma since we hadn’t eaten all day, and on the way I noticed a large building that had been completely smacked down into an almost comically sad, saggy pile. “What building is - was - that?” I asked.

“That was the Bethlehem municipality,” said the driver. Town Hall. The way Arafat was supposed to keep control. That and the security center and the prisons, all destroyed by Israel. I saw a destroyed prison in Nablus last year. Several police officers and prisoners were killed during the bombardment, but most of the imprisoned Hamas guys escaped. How do you spell security? Apparently not IDF.

I hate to repeat myself, but the following quotation from Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem seems appropriate here:

I was at a dinner party in Herzliya in the summer of 1988 and was seated next to one of the most senior Labor Party Cabinet ministers—a man deeply involved in security matters. We talked about the usual things—America, the economy, the Arabs—before I asked him what kind of moral challenge the intifada was posing to the Israeli army. The Labor Minister was eating some lamb at the time. He stopped chewing, turned to me with a piece of lamb on his fork, and said straightaway, ‘If you ask me, the sooner the Palestinians return to terrorism, the better it will be for us.’

Here’s an interview with the recently resigned Palestinian Justice Minister Nahed al-Rayyes, who freely admits there is chronic corruption in the Palestinian Authority, but claims that Israel manufactures a good deal of it, not least by destroying their ability to keep law and order.

When we got back to the clinic and mentioned the destroyed Municipality, the nurse in charge cheerfully said that when it was bombed, all of the glass in the clinic was blown out. She was cheerful about everything.

As we were leaving Bethlehem, we were stopped at the checkpoint as expected. The soldier opened our door and took the IDs of the men, but not the two women, so he didn’t know I was American. He looked at us and asked, "Which one of you is the paramedic?" Abu ‘Ala said it was he.

"You are from Jerusalem," said the soldier. "You are Israeli?"

Abu ‘Ala affected a comically blank look of polite confusion, as if the soldier had just casually suggested that he was from Neptune.

"You are Israeli," the soldier said again.

"Qudsi, Qudsi," said the Doctor from the front seat. Qudsi is Arabic for Jerusalemite.

"You are an Israeli," the soldier repeated.

"Min Al-Quds," Abu ‘Ala said.

The soldier was not giving up. "You are an Israeli."

Abu ‘Ala just looked at him.

"You. Are. Israeli."

Abu ‘Ala shrugged. "Tayyib."

The word could have been understood by the soldier as, "OK," but the rest of us knew he was saying, "You can say what you like, it makes no difference to me. I just want to get home." The soldier handed his ID back.

As we approached Qalandia checkpoint, a car stopped us and asked if we could take a sick woman with us, since we could get through the checkpoint faster. (We were driving in an ambulance.) She said she had stomach pains, and she and her mother got in. As we got closer we could see an enormous burning pile of tires blocking the road, and we heard gunshots. Kids were throwing stones at the soldiers, and the usual response was often deadly. My stomach began spinning as I realized that we were the only ambulance, and if any kids were shot, they would be brought to us.

I also knew that hundreds of ambulances have been targeted by IDF forces, and an ambulance driver had been shot in the arm with live ammunition only days before. And the soldiers didn’t know there was an American on board. I found myself wishing I could grow an American flag out of my head, or wear a giant sign that said, "It’s really bad PR to hurt me!"

Of course such thoughts are morally cowardly, as my life is neither more nor less important or precious than any Palestinian’s. Thoughts like this underscore the absurdity of anyone’s life being publicly expendable.

Sure enough, soon a kid of 16 or 17 hobbled over to our ambulance holding his bleeding back. He appeared to be in stable but terrified condition. He kept muttering, "Yaba, yaba, ya allah, ya allah," (Dad, dad, oh God, oh God), and after a while he gathered the presence of mind to call his dad on his cell phone.

Then another kid of 15 or 16 got in holding his thigh. I saw the gash in his jeans where the bullet had penetrated. His hand, and soon a bandage, covered the wound. He just sat, alert but disinterested, as if all of this were old hat to him. The bullets were probably rubber or rubber-coated steel. Qalandia has relatively high media traffic, so tactics tend to be tamer there.

I was reminded of the kid at the hospital in Ramallah who’d had his arm shot with live ammunition for throwing stones. Most of the kids in the WorldVision report were killed for seemingly no reason, but a good handful were shot and killed for throwing stones.

We made it to the hospital with no further incidents, and the kids were taken in. Dr. Barghouthi smiled and said, "You’ve seen a lot today." I nodded, numb and tired.



Next: Yom Kippur Message

Previous | Contents | Home