Bethlehem in the crosshairs
Received Dec. 24, 2002


BROTHER Jerome Sullivan decided to walk down the hill to attend Mass on the second Sunday of Advent. Normally, strolling to church on a Sunday morning is not a major event. But in the biblical city of Bethlehem, as for much of the West Bank, nothing is normal.

A few blocks from Bethlehem University, which his order sponsors and staffs, Sullivan was stopped by a soldier of the Israeli Defense Forces. The entire city of Bethlehem was under curfew, with residents forbidden to travel or even be out on the streets.

“He stopped me, asked to see my documents, examined my passport, and then let me go ahead,” Sullivan said in a Dec. 8 telephone interview with NCR. “But if I had been a Palestinian, I’m sure I would have been turned back -- or worse.”

The brothers at Bethlehem University have a unique vantage point for viewing the endless cycle of killing and retribution in Bethlehem.

The endless debate hardly needs rehearsing. The Israeli argument is that suicide bombings of innocent civilians bring the retribution. The Palestinians respond, of course, that the retaliation is all out of proportion and directed against an already oppressed people driven to extremes by their situation.

Whatever view one takes, the unrelenting reality -- and irony -- is that in Bethlehem this Christmas the entire population is under a total, citywide lockdown.

A native New Yorker and former head of the De La Salle Christian Brothers’ New York province, Sullivan is the university’s vice president for development. Previously a teacher and administrator at several of the order’s high schools in the New York area, he is no stranger to challenges. But he and the faculty at Bethlehem University admit that the past year has been the most difficult in their tenure and probably in the university’s 28-year history. He and his confreres -- one from Great Britain, one native Palestinian and seven other Americans -- are struggling to hold a major university together and keep it functioning while the Israelis continue to lock much of the West Bank, and Bethlehem in particular, in virtual house arrest that began in the spring.

Br. Neil Kieffe, the university’s vice president for academic affairs, recited a litany of woes that would have driven many other universities to hang a “CLOSED” sign on the door and send students elsewhere. The university’s newest construction project, a multi-million dollar complex named Millennium Hall, was dedicated in February, featuring state-of-the-art classrooms, labs, an auditorium and office building. In March, Israeli anti-tank missiles slammed into the new buildings, clearly targeting their support columns -- a common maneuver the Israeli forces usually reserve for civilian dwellings, to ensure that they are too badly damaged to repair. More than 100 Israeli soldiers commandeered the campus for their barracks in April, despite the fact that as a religious and educational institution the university should be protected from military incursion by international law. In October, Kieffe said, “every building on the campus was damaged by the Israeli invasion,” with an estimated repair bill well over $100,000.

Worrying about human toll

But the brothers worry about the human toll on faculty and students as well as loss of learning more than damage to the buildings. “We lost over 100 class days due to the total lockdown,” Kieffe said. When students weren’t turned back at IDF roadblocks or locked in their homes by the curfew, they sometimes risked their lives to get to class. Because of the frequent road closures, one taxi cannot make the entire trip, “which means that students sometimes have to take five or six taxis to get to the university. And when they do, they may discover their instructors weren’t able to get in.”

The university lost two faculty members this past year, both to emigration, Kieffe said. “It was just too much stress” for them. They both lived fairly close, “but sometimes it took all day to make a trip that should be a half hour, and then when they’d get to campus, there were no students.”

Fadi Kattan is one person who’s committed to staying, but he shares the frustration of his colleagues and his students. Kattan, a Roman Catholic who is a lifelong resident of Bethlehem, is dean of Bethlehem University’s College of Business Administration.

Kattan, 36, has seen most of his extended family emigrate to the United States and South America in the past two years. “They wanted to remain -- this is their homeland, this is a sacred place they come from -- but they couldn’t survive anymore. The parents are willing to make sacrifices themselves, but they want something better than this for their children. They want more than constant fighting and killing. So those who can, leave,” Kattan told NCR in a telephone interview.

As an educator, he feels the frustration of seeing young people not able to live up to their potential because the education has been so erratic. “It’s like trying to teach normally when you’re in a war zone,” he said. “By the time they come to university, what they learned before was very poor, because school happens in between constant fighting. They lose weeks of school, the teachers can’t follow a decent curriculum. Then, when they do come here, we can’t really ask too much of these kids. They can’t study because they haven’t slept in weeks, they hear gunfire all night, they have nightmares. Or they’re depressed -- all of them have lost someone to death, a relative, a friend. I can’t assign them any field work, because they can’t get around, they can’t travel outside their community to do it.”

But Kattan, Kieffe and Sullivan all agreed that the situation at Bethlehem University is nothing compared to the plight of the residents of Bethlehem.

The past year has seen a pattern of escalating oppression and harassment against the population of Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Sahour and Beit Jala -- the two West Bank villages with the largest and oldest Christian populations, built on the site of the shepherds’ fields described in the Christmas story.

All under house arrest

Approximately 150,000 people live in the city of Bethlehem, the two villages, and three refugee camps, including Dheishah, the largest, which Pope John Paul II visited during his March 1999 pilgrimage to the Holy Land and where he called for a Palestinian state. For much of the past year, the entire population has been under house arrest that began in April with the siege at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity -- the traditional birthplace of Jesus (NCR, April 26 ).

The year’s first military occupation of Bethlehem lasted for 39 days, from April 2 through May 10. Twenty days of freedom followed -- until June 20, when the Israelis locked the city down for a full 60 days. Again, a period of relief followed -- until Nov. 22, the latest incursion, which Bethlehem residents are told will last until the end of the year.

Israelis call the episodic lockdowns a curfew. But “that term is insidious,” said Kieffe. “Curfew makes you think that people have to be home by a certain time, or can’t go out for a few hours at night. This is house arrest, plain and simple.

“Everyone [in Bethlehem] is totally restricted to their homes 24 hours a day. In the past nine days we were only allowed out for four hours, to do a little shopping for food and medicine.”

According to Israeli party line, the military occupation of Bethlehem and surrounding towns is a “security measure,” because Palestinian gunmen have been shooting at IDF troops from the towns, or as retaliation for suicide bombings. It has become a relentless cycle. A Palestinian suicide bomber kills Israeli civilians or soldiers; within hours, Israel retaliates by demolishing the homes of Palestinian civilians, or strafing villages with gunfire. More people, usually women and children, are killed. Palestinians respond to the newest violence, and the killing goes on.

From within Bethlehem, both Palestinians and other nationals working there have a vastly different perspective. Those living in Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour believe that the issue is much more than simple retaliation or security. The total disproportion of the Israeli response has convinced many that what they are experiencing is an organized campaign of orchestrated, systematic ethnic cleansing -- an effort on Israel’s part to drive all Palestinians from the region.

Sharon’s pattern

In his assessment of why Israel acts as it does in the West Bank, Kieffe points to Ariel Sharon.

“Just watch Sharon’s pattern,” said Kieffe, who for 18 years chaired the nationally recognized aviation department at Lewis University outside Chicago. “Every time it quiets down a little, he needs to stir things up. Things were quiet for three months, from Aug. 20 until Nov. 22. Then -- pow! -- here come the tanks again, here come more soldiers. Total lockdown. You punish 150,000 civilians because a supposed Hamas militant orchestrated a suicide bombing?”

The Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Bethlehem’s Christmas Lutheran Church and director of the International Center of Bethlehem, agrees that the hunt for militants is simply an excuse. “The Israelis are looking for nothing. This is just a pretext,” he said in a telephone interview with NCR Dec. 6. “[Sharon] wants to show that he can occupy even Bethlehem at Christmastime. It has nothing to do with looking for militant people. The rationale is that Sharon wants to bring more hopelessness to the Palestinians. He wants more extremists among the Palestinians.”

According to Raheb, a Bethlehem-born Palestinian, it is in Sharon’s interest to have Hamas and Islamic Jihad growing, and it is in the interest of the Palestinian militant groups to have Sharon taking action. “The right wing of both societies are helping each other. The normal people in both societies are suffering,” he said.

The lack of proportion in Israel’s response, Kieffe said, is part of Sharon’s game plan: “Sharon wants all of the West Bank, and he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to do it. Simply put, he wants all Palestinians out. And if he can’t do it militarily, he aims to just wear people down, grinding down their quality of life as much as he can.”

Sullivan agreed. The raw aggression and bullying of the civilian population by the Israeli Defense Forces demonstrate that “we totally have lost control of everything in Bethlehem,” he said.

He described an event Dec. 5, when the Israelis announced they were lifting the curfew for a few hours, from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. “Of course, as soon as 11 a.m. would come, the entire town would descend on the market. They had gone for days without being able to buy food. So some produce merchants went out around 10 to set up their stands, to be ready when the crowds of shoppers came. But the soldiers went into the market and overturned the tables. Some they smashed with their rifle butts. Then they threw all the produce on the ground -- and they couldn’t leave it at that: They stomped on all the fruit and vegetables, destroying it, so the vendors had nothing to sell. ‘We told you 11, not 10,’ one soldier yelled to the merchants as his rationale for the action.”

“The message is: ‘Shop, if you can; send mail, if you can; drive your car, if you can. We’re stronger than you. And we’re doing this because we can get away with it.’ “

Bullying food merchants is small change when compared to Israel’s other forms of aggression against the Palestinian people.

The plan is to totally isolate Palestinian villages by ringing the entire region with Israeli settlements -- illegal according the Oslo Accords, but nevertheless proliferating under the Sharon government. The most egregious is Har Homa (Abu Ghuneim in Arabic), which dominates an entire hillside just northeast of Bethlehem. Construction was stalled in 1999, when Bethlehem and neighboring municipalities protested the settlement on legal grounds -- it was being built on confiscated land, for one thing. To build it, Israel confiscated several hundred acres, or dunum, belonging to Beit Sahour, and destroyed thousands of the village’s olive trees-- their wood, oil and fruit a principal source of income -- to build access roads for the settlements.

Strategic isolation

Today Har Homa is a pre-fab concrete giant, poorly designed and ugly, looming over historic Bethlehem. But more than its lack of aesthetics worries its Palestinian neighbors. The settlement is ready for occupancy, with 50,000 apartments available tax-free for Jews coming to Israel from all over the world, especially Eastern Europe and the United States. Many settlements are dominated by U.S. Jews, with Brooklyn accents sprinkled among the Hebrew and Russian one hears in the West Bank.

Har Homa is expected to bring environmental disaster to the beleaguered region, generating millions of tons of waste that will probably end up polluting the severely limited Palestinian water supplies. Israel is already in breach of numerous provisions of the Oslo Accords, which prohibit confiscation of or use of Palestinian water sources and aquifers. Currently 65 percent of Palestine’s water is illegally being siphoned off and going to 45,000 Jewish settlers, with only 35 percent of Palestine’s water left for 1.2 million Palestinians.

Each settlement also means dozens of access roads -- built with U.S. taxpayer dollars as economic aid to Israel -- and totally off limits to the Palestinian people whose land they bisect.

As the settlements continue to strategically ring the West Bank, they form a noose suffocating Palestinian movement, their roads cutting off Palestinians from their land, slicing between houses and farmland or terraces. In the case of Har Homa, the access roads have effectively paralyzed several small villages around Bethlehem, the inhabitants now stranded on virtual islands, totally surrounded by Israeli settlements and unable to move freely to schools, churches, mosques and work outside their communities.

“The roads are deliberately designed to crisscross the landscape, so that little Palestinian areas are isolated by Israeli roads,” Kieffe said. “Squeeze them until you kill them off.”

“Listen to Sharon and he talks about ‘transfer’ of the Palestinians from the region. That’s code for ethnic cleansing, and the settlements are effectively doing that. That’s why instead of stopping them, as Israel committed to doing, he’s going full steam ahead -- and neither the United States nor the United Nations is willing to slap his hand.”

Reem Gedeon is not a politician. But she knows from painful firsthand experience what the strangling of Bethlehem means. The 19-year-old honors student at Bethlehem University lives halfway between the university and Manger Square with its 1,600-year-old Church of the Nativity.

Like most Palestinian young people, she lives at home with her parents, sisters and brother -- in her case a total of five siblings. With lack of jobs, no money for rent, and the impossibility of buying or building homes of their own, young Palestinians often live in their parental home into their 30s, with newlyweds sharing space with extended family for years. And like most of her Bethlehem neighbors, her family has had no source of income for months.

Gedeon’s father, Francis, 56, is a tailor with a shop in central Bethlehem. But business stopped completely when the military incursion began. “People have no money to buy clothes or have them sewn,” and the few who do don’t have money for alterations, she said. Her brother Fadi is an accountant, but he can’t work because he can’t travel to his job near Jerusalem; the same with an older sister, a nurse. The only way that Gedeon can afford to go to college is that she attends Bethlehem University on scholarship -- despite the difficulties of the past two years, she maintains a 3.81 grade point average.

Because of the lockdown, Gedeon said she could get to the university just one time during the entire past semester -- for 15 minutes of class time. “But 15 minutes is better than nothing.”

No Christmas in Bethlehem

The Gedeons are Roman Catholics; they can trace their Catholic roots back for centuries, and they are proud of their faith. One of the greatest sorrows for Gedeon is that the military occupation of Bethlehem means no Christmas.

“Here we are, living in the very city where Jesus was born, and we cannot celebrate Christmas. People all over the world will be thinking of Bethlehem, because of Jesus, but in Bethlehem there will be no happiness,” she told NCR.

There is speculation that Israel, as a public relations move, will lift the curfew at the last minute on Christmas eve, allowing some movement to the Church of the Nativity. But even if that happens, much of the public celebration has officially been called off. The city of Bethlehem each year hosts an elaborate parade and procession into Manger Square, complete with marching bands, with each Christian tradition presenting its own music, elaborate costumes and prayer rituals. City officials have already said there are no plans for any such public display this year.

“I live 10 minutes from the Church of the Nativity,” said Kattan, “and [because of the curfew] I can’t go there for Christmas. That is wrong. The world needs to know that the Christians in Bethlehem can’t celebrate the birth of Jesus in the place where he was born.”

For some Christians, celebrating Christmas 2002 in a lower key is the closest they can come to a boycott as a show of solidarity with their Muslim neighbors. “The Muslims could not go out to buy their food, to celebrate the feast of Eid [al Fitr] at the end of Ramadan,” Gedeon said. “How can we then have a big party for Christmas? We’ll have prayers, but no party, because the Muslims couldn’t have their party.”

Gedeon says when she ventures out into the streets when the curfew is lifted, “there’s nothing going on. There are no decorations, no trees, nothing of Christmas. You hear just the sound of tanks, and you see the damage from the guns and tanks. Everybody walks around very sad. They get their groceries and hurry home, no life in their faces.

“Bethlehem is suffering so much. I feel depressed, because it seems the world has forgotten about us. You can’t understand what it is like here, with a gun pointed at your head all the time. Your home is a jail, because you can’t go out.”

A good part of Gedeon’s sadness is more than melancholy. It’s rooted in genuine loss, and understandable anger. Her 23-year-old brother Osama died of cancer in April. He had been sick at home, while the military occupation was in full force because the siege at the Church of the Nativity was underway.

“We couldn’t get him out to go to hospital, because they would let no one leave,” she said. “And we couldn’t get a doctor to come. So my brother died here in our house, without the medical care he needed. He might still be alive,” she said softly. “I would look at the church [of the Nativity], where they had ambulances waiting outside for the soldiers and see my brother here dying because he couldn’t get to hospital. And there was nothing any of us could do about it.”

For several days after his death, the family could not bury Osama because of the house arrest. “We had no funeral, no procession, no Mass,” Gedeon said. “We could not even go out to the cemetery.” Finally, the Christian Brothers at the university arranged for her brother to be buried in a tiny cemetery behind the university and helped the family transport his body for burial.

Despite her grief and anger at seeing her town under military occupation, Gedeon is determined not to let hatred win out. And although she hates violence, she believes the intifada is the only way Palestinian young people have to express themselves.

“The only way we have is stones,” she said. “They have tanks and guns. But this is our land and we want to stay on it. The occupation is wrong, and it must end sooner or later. No other nation in the world is under occupation for more than 50 years,” she said.

“I try not to hate and I don’t want to hate. We want peace, for all people,” Gedeon said. “By peace we can make the world a better one.”

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christians in Bethlehem have prayers to offer and requests to make.

“I pray they have a beautiful Christmas,” said Nancy Elias, a Bethlehem-born Catholic faculty member at Bethlehem University’s College of Education. “And I would say to them, please don’t forget us. Bethlehem needs peace, but it needs justice first. Tell President Bush to stop supporting actions that hurt the people of Palestine, the people of Bethlehem. Think about Christmas here, and you will want to work for peace.”

Ask them to pray for us, to remember us, said Gedeon. “You love Jesus. Well, we are the people trying just to exist where Jesus was born.”

Ask questions, said Kattan. “Always ask ‘Why?’ When you hear your government is doing something, ask why, what people will be affected by this action?”

Raheb, the Lutheran pastor, hopes that Catholics especially will be motivated to take action when they learn of the oppression of Bethlehem Christians. The people of Bethlehem, he said, “are saying, ‘What are the 50 million Catholics in the United States doing, with Bethlehem under curfew at Christmas, the little town that everyone is singing about?’ If this happened to Jewish people, the churches would cry out and say, ‘Look at the discrimination the Jews are suffering.’

“The little town of Bethlehem is under curfew and the Christians who have been living here for 2,000 years will not be able to celebrate this Christmas. How can [U.S. Christians] sleep in peace?”

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor.

NCR senior writer Margot Patterson contributed to this story.