Subject: Independent | news | World

From the UK Independent:

            Pope's sermon of defiance sparks Bethlehem riots

            By Phil Reeves in Deheisheh refugee camp, Bethlehem

            23 March 2000

            The Pope became the instant hero of the Palestinian people
yesterday after he plunged into the political cauldron of the Middle East
with what amounted to a stinging indictment of Israel's conduct.

            But only an hour after uttering his words – at a Palestinian
refugee camp in Bethlehem – the place erupted into riots with running street
battles between stone-throwing Palestinians youths and baton- wielding
Palestinian police, who were also hurling stones.

            Emotions – stoked high because of the pontiff's visit – spilled
over half an hour after the Popemobile had drawn out of Bethlehem, bearing
its 79-year-old occupant back to a helicopter and nearby Jerusalem. If proof
was needed of the perils of John Paul II's mission to the Middle East – and
the risk he is taking personally, despite a huge security operation – then
this was it.

            As dusk turned to darkness, large chunks of concrete and rocks
flew through the air, as about 700 youths charged out of the camp to
confront the police, who engaged in the battle as enthusiastically as the
youths they were trying to quell.

            At first the police were driven back, but then they returned,
with shields, wooden batons and, in some cases, large planks of wood and
heavy bits of metal pipe. Some of the security officials began brawling with
their colleagues, apparently urging restraint.

            Only an hour earlier, the pontiff himself – a picture of frail
vulnerability for all his splendour and power – had been standing before a
crowd in the same camp, Deheisheh, the squalid and overcrowded home of most
of these rioters.

            In words that acquired a new resonance as the fights began, he
spoke mumblingly, but graphically of the "degrading conditions" that
Palestinians have endured since being driven from their homes during the
1948 Israeli-Arab war, and emphasised their "unalienable right to justice".

            "You have been deprived of many things which represent the basic
needs of the human person: proper housing, health care, education and work,"
he told them. He cannot have known that these deprivations – which much
surely play a big part in the tensions here – would take violent expression
so soon.

            "This is very, very bad," said a middle-aged Palestinian man as
the fighting raged to and fro. For two hours we were trapped together inside
a restaurant while the fighting raged only a few yards away. "I have never
seen anything like it in my life," he said, shaking his head. He did not
want to be named. For good reason. These were scenes – such an ugly contrast
to the flagwaving and joy of their brief moment in the international
limelight earlier – the security police did not want to be seen.

            Earlier, the sight of his Popemobile drew warm cheers and
applause from the waiting crowd as it drew into the camp, the final stop in
a day which saw him preside over an outdoor mass before a large crowd in
Bethlehem's Manger Square.

            "You bear the sad memory of what you were forced to leave
behind," the pontiff told the refugees, who are a small percentage of the
3.5 million Palestinian refugees scattered around Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
"Not just the material possessions, but your freedom, the closeness of
relatives and the familiar surroundings and cultural traditions which
nourished your personal and family life." It became clear that John Paul II
intended to pull no punches from the moment he arrived in
Palestinian-controlled territory, yesterday morning. Addressing Yasser
Arafat at the Bethlehem helipad, before going on to the mass, he stressed
that "there would be no end to this sad conflict in the Holy Land without
stable guarantees for the rights of all people's involved on the basis of
international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions and

            These words were aimed squarely at Israel, which has long defied
key UN resolutions. Mr Arafat himself was restrained; the case was being
made for him.

            The Pope also made pointed reference to Israel's approach to
peace talks with the Palestinians, which resumed this week. "Only with a
just and lasting peace – not imposed but secured through negotiations –will
legitimate Palestinian aspirations be fulfilled." The Holy See had always
recognised Palestinians' right to a homeland, he said, adding that Deheisheh
served as "a reminder to the international community that decisive action is
needed to improve the situation".

            The Israeli reaction was dismissive. "We see nothing new in the
Vatican's position," said Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Public Security Minister. "We
will not look at the petty details of the visit through a microscope."

            But even if the Palestinians do not make the connection between
his appearance and the ensuing riots, some Israelis will do so. He will be
blamed for stoking up the mood, and the behaviour of the Palestinian police
will be cited as evidence that they are not yet ready for their own

            The Pope's one day in Palestinian-controlled territory was
always going to be the controversial part of his programme, and certainly
the day which was most likely to jar with the Israelis. Even the Manger
Square mass, conducted yards away from the church marking the presumed site
of Christ's birth, almost had the flavour of a rally, in which the thousands
of Palestinian worshippers waved a sea of national flags at the world's
television cameras. But Deheisheh, – more a township than a camp these days,
which houses 10,000 Palestinians in dismal conditions – was the most
precarious of all.

            Its walls, still carrying Arabic writing from the Intifada, were
festooned with fresh grafitti and banners, outlining the full panapoly of
Palestinian grievances for the Pope to see.