Reinvaded Bethlehem


The occupying Israeli army forces Palestinians to sit in their homes, trapped for days on end. Here in Bethelehem it has only been five days. In Nablus it has been months. Schools, shops, everything, is closed. A woman went to Ramallah for school one day. She is still there, but her school is closed. She cannot return home. She lives in Bethlehem’s Aida Refugee Camp. Another woman is having a baby alone. Her husband went to Ramallah for work and has not been able to return. It is impossible to leave. It is impossible to get out. Israeli soldiers pound on the doors of homes and families jump up. If they do not open the door quickly enough, the soldiers will break them down or start shooting. The Israeli soldiers tramp through the homes in boots and helmets, wearing army gear and carrying M-16s. They shove the guns into old men’s stomachs and demand identification. The families scramble to prove that the Israeli government has legitimized their existence. The children cry and the entire family is ordered out of their homes. Israeli soldiers hold guns to their heads and make them stand against walls in their own streets. Some are made to lie on the ground. Hours pass. It’s raining. Israeli soldiers eat candy bars and chit-chat with one another. The families are not allowed to speak. It becomes dark. The Israeli soldiers blindfold some of the Palestinians and bind their hands. They throw them into the back of jeeps. The Palestinians are on their way to Israeli administrative detention. They are held without charge for three months, for questioning. This means interrogation and torture. The torture, I am told by friends who have survived it, involves being bound to small chairs while beaten or made to stand on tip-toes with their hands cuffed high up on walls for days on end. They are hit and screamed at. Some are made to “confess” to “crimes.” Many allude to sexual assault. No one will tell me exactly what has happened to them. They look down and say they want to forget. Some smile, their eyes turn bright and wet, and say, “this is the life.”

The Israeli military has reinvaded Bethlehem and has put all West Bank Area A under curfew. Area A, under Oslo, is what Palestine was “given” sovereignty over. During the night the soldiers drive through the camp shouting from a loud-speaker, “All families in Aida Camp, you are under curfew. You are not allowed to leave your homes.” Who is this arrogant occupying army and why are they allowed to exist. The Israeli soldiers call out, “Al-Akbar,” which is part of the call to prayer for the Muslims in the camp, at all hours. They laugh and shout and gun the engines of the tanks. During the day families sit inside their homes. They cannot cross the street to see friends, or if the Israeli soldiers have entered the camp while they have dared outside, they are stuck for days in a friend’s house. A man this morning opened his front door to check on the new house he is building accross the alley. He was grabbed by Israeli soldiers who demanded his I.D. They told him if he is “caught” outside again he will go to the prison. This is a Palestinian refugee camp whose resident’s original homes were already taken by the government and residents of Israel. They are not allowed into the narrow alley-ways that pass for streets here.

A woman whose husband has been exiled to Gaza is pulled from her home with her three small children. They are made to stand outside all day and are made to feel grateful when they are allowed to go back inside their house, which has become a jail cell.

The Israeli “Defense” Minister is calling this “Operation Step By Step.” He tells the press, “we are just getting started.” He says the Israeli military will stay inside of Bethelehem until the Israeli elections in January. The Israeli military came into Bethelehem the night before the suicide bombing in Al-Quds. Now they use it as their excuse for being here. A Palestinian journalist was arrested yesterday, and the Israeli soldiers stole his video tapes. This is part of the continued assault on the truth. International media has reported that the Israeli’s are using “restraint.” This is an illegal occupying army and government. The Israeli military is shooting children with rubber bullets and tear-gas, beating and sometimes killing them. The Palestinians are using restraint. In resisting the continual Israeli occupation and this reinvasion, some people in this area throw stones. In this act of collective resistance, the spirit of the first Intifada is alive. Small children run after black smoke spitting tanks throwing stones which are really just bits of concrete they have taken from the rubble of their demolished homes. They build small road blocks with whatever they can find, garbage and an old tire. Many of these children will be put in prison, as has most everyone I know at one point or another. Throwing stones is the crime many were charged with that brought them five years in Israeli prisons during the first Intifada.

The Palestinian Authority police that came out of Oslo have largely been arrested now in Bethelehem. The Israeli government in its continual assault on Palestinian infrastructure does not believe in the right of the oppressed to have its own police force.

Abed Al-Ahmar, Amnesty International’s “prisoner of conscience” from May 2001 through May 2002, was taken in the middle of the night. His family was held at gunpoint for two hours. His wife is the legal advisor to the U.N. Our friends who were there at the time tell me that the Israeli soldiers said he is not “wanted.” They just took him anyway.

Tanks are rumbling outside and a young man is peering out the window. Israeli soldiers have kidnapped over 50 Palestinians, adding them to the over 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners being illegally held in Israeli prisons. Israeli bulldozers have demolished many homes of family members of the “wanted.” Fear and resignation are palpable in this town. Old men are made to fear arrogant and heavily armed young boys who have the United States, Israel, and all who fear the US, behind them.

Kristen Ess Stuck in Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine 26 November, 2002

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