Saturday, May 04, 2002

Prison Camp Bethlehem

Currently, the high level diplomatic negotiations and the international media are focused on the standoff between the Palestinians sheltering inside the Church of Nativity and the Israeli army forces outside. While this tragic situation continues, one must not forget the appalling fact that the entire city of Bethlehem and all the towns, villages and refuges camps surrounding it are completely sealed and closed. Palestinians here have been confined to their homes not for a day or a week, but for an entire month.

The phenomenon of turning Palestinian towns into small priosn camps and cantons is not new. In the past nine years throughout the period referred to as the "peace process," all Palestinian cities and towns were sealed and isolated from each other. Israeli roadblocks and checkpoint surrounded them and permits were needed for any type of travel, but now, every single Palestinian home has been transformed into a small prision cell and residents are not allowed to leave. This unprecedented move has been devastating to the people here in every aspect.

The streets of Bethlehem are empty; they are empty because over one hundred and fifty thousand humans; young and old, male and female, Muslim and Christian are now confined to these new prison cells. Imagine yourself not able to walk outside your front door, not able to send your children to school, not able to go to your work, go to pray, buy food, garden your back yard, or take your sick to the doctor. Imagine yourself and your family waking up at three o'clock in the morning to the loud knock of highly armed and camouflaged Israeli soldiers demanding a complete house search and/or a possible arrest, not caring if your children are crying out of fear and shock. Every single Palestinian is waiting for that knock, knowing that he or she is presumed guilty with no room for innocence, no right to a trial, and worse, no right to a defense.

Nothing Palestinian or civil is heard on the empty streets of Bethlehem. I say "nothing Palestinian or civil" because admittedly, Palestinians do hear other things. Things that are not usually heard in little towns and cities where people are treated as human beings and are not collectively punished and accused of being "terrorists" simply because of their national affiliation. Yes, citizens of Bethlehem do hear sounds here. Those sounds are the continuous sounds of Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers shaking and rattling their homes as they rumble freely on our streets as if the streets of this city were made for them. Citizens of Bethlehem hear and see these military machines destroying their streets, cars, pavements, walls, homes, shops, street posts, and sidewalks. They are destroying everything in and out of their way with complete lack of care or concern. This is the war on terror. It is like the neighborhood bully who breaks the other children's toys for no reason other than the mere fun of it. Why not do so? There is no one stopping them.

Every once in a while we hear a round of gunfire from a heavy machine gun. We now know that the target (either directly or as a scare tactic) is usually a Palestinian standing at his or her balcony, hanging their clothes to dry on the roof, or even looking out of their window. It seems that the Israeli army policy is "shoot now and never ask." If a person wants to simply open a window for fresh air, he has to play cat and mouse with a tank or a sniper hiding in an unknown place.  Many civilians in Bethlehem and other cities were killed in or around their homes. In addition, the entire city continuously hears the sounds of grenades and shooting combined with sounds of loud animals and high pitch nerve-raking noises from large loud speakers located in Manger Square. These sounds are aimed as a nerve war against the 200 Palestinians sheltering in the Church of Nativity.

Every few days, the Israeli army removes the curfew for parts of the Bethlehem district. People from the surrounding smaller towns and villages are never able to reach each other to transport goods and food because Bethlehem (located in the middle as the intersection of the district) is always closed when other towns are opened and vise' versa.   The curfew is never lifted in the area where the Church of Nativity is located and where 250 families live.

The curfew is usually lifted for three or four hours at a time and this is where the tragedy and inhumanity of the Israeli aggression is witnessed. The first thing noticed is the amount and the smell of trash and dust covering the streets of the city.  Within minutes of the lifting there are traffic jams everywhere, people running in the streets like zombies trying to find an opened vegetable market or grocery store. Once they reach a shop all they find are out-dated products and vegetables that are starting to rot. Others are trying to find a doctor for a sick child or want to find out about a loved one or friend whose telephone lines were cut. The greatest majority are now those that either have no cash or don't have access to cash due to bank closures. They are trying to find where the food rations brought by international charity organizations are located, so they can get few canned items, some rice and some flour. Very little smiles and greetings are seen on the streets. Everyone wants to simply get what he or she wants before the Israeli army jeeps return, usually an hour earlier than announced, yelling at people to return to their homes. I heard them one day yelling on their speakers continuously, "Go back to your homes, you animals." This is the war on terror.

Citizens of Bethlehem have been sentenced to become prisoners in their homes. While "typical" prisoners are usually informed about their date of release, we do not know when we will be released. Maybe tomorrow, maybe another month form now. Citizens of Bethlehem don't know when they will be allowed to assess the damage, recover the salvageable and begin the rebuilding of this Holy city. One thing for sure, once this aggressive and inhumane attack ends, the city will be rebuilt and the streets will be fixed, but when it comes to the broken hearts, bodies and spirits. well. let us just hope and pray.

There is absolutely no legal, ethical, or moral justification for this prison camp.

In Peace,

Sami Awad
Executive Director
Holy Land Trust