Eyewitness Report from Bethlehem

April 19, 2002

Any person visiting Bethlehem nowadays would not really believe that this same city of the nativity had undergone a comprehensive multi-million dollar facelift some 5 years ago in preparation for the millennium. This facelift would have revamped the whole city from a colonial destruction of over 28 years.

Today, alas, this colonial destruction is restored. Once more the Israeli occupying forces have managed to crush the overall infrastructure of the city best known for its biblical center as the acclaimed birthplace of Jesus.

Yesterday, Thursday, April 18, was the 17th day of the Israeli reoccupation of the city since the last incursion. Yesterday was also the fifth time that the curfew imposed on the city since April 2 has been lifted. Yesterday I decided to go around town, more for sightseeing purposes than for provisioning; and what a sight it was!! I wished I had a camera to chronicle and document what I saw.

Because the curfew is usually lifted for 2-3 hours every four to five days, the streets usually bustle with shoppers at the same time. These however are not the everyday shoppers that any person leading a normal life knows; instead they are hungry shoppers who are practically elbowing their ways through bakeries, groceries, and even suks (vegetable markets) in an attempt to manage to get that last loaf of bread, or the last cup of expired yogurt or pierced can of powdered milk, or even that last wilted small cucumber or tomato. In one bakery in Beit Jala, people were given a serial number with the number of bundles they require and waited in line for their turn. Latecomers left empty-handed as bread ran out before their turn came.

Shoppers, I noticed, were either left with some money and were buying whatever they can provision; or else, they were running short of money and were bargaining with some opportunist merchants to get the most with the little they were left with; others yet waited until they got last of the supplies which were stale and unfit for human consumption but still paid half or third of the original price to get them; and there were those by-standers who just stared and watched and were unable to even collect the remnants of thrown away food.

Obviously, all luxury-item selling shops were closed since people are only concerned with their daily bread at this crucial economic stage.

On the sides of the roads, garbage containers either lay tank-crushed or else 'if they were still intact' were full to the rim, and high heaps of garbage stacked around them. At the main garbage container at the southern entrance of the Azzeh refugee camp, one lane of the two-lane street was covered with stacked garbage forcing cars to drive around them. In other areas of the city, people have established garbage collection sites at virtual location, creating a precedent for future dumping. From a distance, I could see scattered clouds of smoke vanishing in the cool spring skies. These turned out to be incinerating sights of uncollected garbage.

Further to the south, and along the Jerusalem-Hebron road that runs alongside the Dheisheh refugee camp, the site of the garbage was even more horrifying. The unattended scattered garbage ran for hundreds of meters with parts of the lane on one side totally blocked. The rotten smell of the garbage was mixed agreeably with that of the running sewers since it seemed to me that the whole drainage system in that area was totally destroyed. The tires of my car still carry this mixture of aroma.

The damages also reached a number of electric poles. Some of these poles originally stood silent at the side of the streets carrying electric current and phone tone to the city; the other poles' centered in the middle of the main streets and which were recently erected' played a more interactive role by illuminating the quite streets of that little town of Bethlehem. Traffic lights, which were first introduced to Bethlehem in 1987 at the start of the first Intifada but were never operational, and were once more reintroduced in 1989, added an extra light effect to the nights of Bethlehem.

But now, some of these once essential posts were no longer. Many had been run down and over by the hundreds of Israeli military vehicles that have ceaselessly devirginized the city. Others were hanging loose from the electric wiring, standing literally in the air. Still others that were partially knocked down, and which stand on a thin, shattered parts of their bases, risk the danger of collapsing causing possible damage to adjacent buildings, parked cars, or even the occasional pedestrians. All these damages caused to the poles have paralyzed the surrounding area where they are located. Technicians from the telephone or the electricity companies cannot restore the damages because of the curfew. Many people that I have spoken to have not had electricity for over thirteen days yesterday. Our home phone 'and hundreds of others in the city, I am sure' has been damaged for a similar period.

Driving through the heavily armored streets 'armored with Israeli tanks, personnel carriers and jeeps, all patrolled and surveyed from the air by American made Israeli Apaches' one cannot help but notice the massive destruction to buildings and parked cars from the heavy shelling. Shattered windows, destroyed walls, pierced water tanks, and tank-crushed cars are all within eye distance and reach from every passer-by. I passed a number of moving cars, of which one was a Red Crescent ambulance; they all had missing windshields or side windows. Even trees that have been planted to add beauty to the city were not spared. Broken branches and leaves mixed with the dust and the flying empty plastic bags in the streets.

Exhausted, many of the familiar faces I saw just had this look of desperation. Since the incursion, all businesses 'including postal services and banks' have been closed and people have not gone to work since then. Many might not get paid soon, and others might never return to their jobs. A number of businesses would most likely shut down their operations. The money available with the people would soon run out and they would have nothing to buy food with. Passing in front of two major banks on Manger Street, I noticed they were open. I assumed they opened to try to make cash available to and in the disposition of the very few who are left with money in their accounts. When I looked inside the bank, they were quasi empty.

People, I realized have started to run out of money. When I called in to check on a next-door neighbor, his wife who answered the phone, beseeched for some food. She said they do not have money 'her husband and his four brothers have been out of work since the incursion and they have been left with no money' to feed the whole family of 20 members or so. So I collected some of the canned food and rice I had stored at home, and bought some of the available vegetables in the market and handed them to her. Thankfully she took the bags from and insinuated that they had also run out of cooking gas. So I took one of the two butane tanks I have at home and delivered it to them. I wonder how will they manage next time!!

As the time for the lifting of the curfew drew nearer, I headed home. In mind was the image imprinted of the city and the destruction that has befallen it. With a quick calculation, I thought to myself that the city will require one whole year 'with round the clock work' to be restored to the state it was in before the first incursion back in August of last year, with the assumption that all necessary material, equipment, vehicles, manpower, and money needed for the renovation are at the immediate disposal (and with no shortage whatsoever at any time) of the municipality and the Local Government and provided that there is 100% efficiency in the implementation of the restoration process.

Amidst all of this chaos in town and the preoccupation of the Palestinians in their day-to-day survival, the Israeli government was quickly and surely going ahead in the continuous confiscation of the Palestinian land at the northern most borders of Bethlehem with Jerusalem. The Israeli army's bulldozers are undergoing a major facelift to create a highway that connects the two Israeli settlements founded on the Palestinian lands of Al Malha and Abu Ghneim (named Gilo and Har Homa by Israel upon confiscation in 1967 and 1992 respectively) and a multi kilometer fence that runs from west to east separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

All of this is happening under the unexplained and unjustified silence of the international community, the Islamic and Christian worlds, and the so-called peace-seeking countries.

With all of these thoughts boomeranging through my mind, I realized that the sounds of vehicles outside was diminishing as people were rushing to reach home before the curfew is imposed once more. Only the sounds of my car's tires rubbing against the marks left by the Israeli tanks and army vehicles could be heard. It is such a disturbing sound and such a useless way for tires to wear and tear. Maybe the one-year period I was referring to for the restoration of the city is not enough. Let's say maybe two years.

Olive Picking Season in 21st Century Palestine

October 23, 2002

In the midst of the olive picking season, the Palestinians are once more going through another form of hostility.

This centuries-old Palestinian tradition is becoming more of a burden, on the pickers, than a cultural and social ritual, since illegal Israeli settlers have forcefully and under gunpoint prevented Palestinians from picking their olives in their own groves.  These attacks have been further supported by a statement made recently by one of the Zionist rabbis whereby settlers have all the right to collect the olive harvest from Palestinians because, as he claims, the Palestinians have planted olive trees in the settlers legitimate territories.

To add harm to injury, the Israeli government urged all Palestinian olive pickers not to pick their olives this year because, as the government claimed, it cannot guarantee that the Israeli [occupying] forces will stop or even try to prevent the settlers’ raids and attacks on Palestinian olive pickers.

Foreign intervention was thus necessary.  A group of international volunteers initiated a step in support of the unjustly treated Palestinians to put a temporary solution to this seasonal problem.  These volunteers mobilized themselves in all Palestinian olive groves found especially in the lines of Israeli settlers’ fires.  They took it upon themselves to stand as human shields to protect the Palestinian olive pickers.  They even went one step further to pick the olives themselves while the pickers watched from a distance, distressed over how this year they will not eat from their own-hand-picked olives.