A demonstrator kicks away a tear gas cannister during an Israeli raid on Bethlehem.(Dan Cohen)
On Friday, 14 March, around 7pm, the Israeli Border Police assaulted the city from the military compound at the site of Rachel’s Tomb. The police spokesperson has been unreachable for comment.
The assault took place on the final evening of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which was organized by Palestinian Christians to educate the global church about the reality of injustice faced by those living under occupation. The conference hosted more than 600 attendees, and was labeled a “serious long-term threat by Israeli security” by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to Israel Today.
I arrived after the assault had begun. International tourists looked on from their hotel lobbies as tear gas filled the air. A curious few ventured outside during moments of calm.
Approximately fifteen Palestinian youths were on a street next to the Intercontinental Hotel, the site of the conference. They peered from behind walls and hurled stones. Israeli Border Police fired several dozen tear gas canisters, one of which landed on top of the entrance to the Saint Michael Hotel. Another bounced off of a bus. A young girl suffered from tear gas inhalation and a man carried her into the Saint Michael Hotel.
I walked up the street towards the Border Police to photograph them from the side. One policeman attempted to engage me in conversation, asking, “Where are you from?” While firing tear gas, he shouted in English, “Peace and love,” and, “I’m the hero of the day!”
Rubber-coated bullets were fired by the Israeli forces as well.
Though the Israeli assault was rather ordinary for demonstrations in the West Bank, the concluding events put the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority’s coordination with the Israeli military on open display.
Created by Oslo
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was created by the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization twenty years ago to serve as a temporary governing body during the final years of political negotiations.
The West Bank was divided into three areas: A, B and C. In Area A, which includes major population centers, the PA took full responsibility for civil administration as well as security. However, the Israeli military regularly makes incursions into Area A in violation of the Oslo accords.
In Area B, security is shared by the Israeli military and the PA, though the PA is responsible for civil administration services. In Area C, the Israeli military government controls both military and civil administration services.
The final negotiations never occurred, and the status quo has continued, as was clear during the Bethlehem raid.
“What can we do?”
At 7:50pm, the Israeli commander ordered the police to withdraw into the military compound. Within one minute of the gate closing, a Palestinian Authority security forces vehicle arrived on the scene and a commander stepped out. He paced around the area directly in front of the Israeli sniper tower. Standing just a few meters away from him, I watched him speak on a cell phone. I then looked up to the sniper tower and saw an Israeli policeman on a cell phone.
The PA commander then took the phone away from his face to look at the screen, as if the connection was interrupted. I looked to the Israeli policeman in the tower who made the same motion with his phone. The PA commander then smiled and waved to the Israeli policeman.
A Palestinian Authority commander signals to his forces while on the phone, presumably with the Israeli soldier in the sniper tower.(Dan Cohen)
A teenage demonstrator ran up the street and threw rocks at the sniper tower. This is typically met with violence from the Israeli military. Instead, the PA commander corralled the stone thrower and forced him back down the street.
Unlike the Border Police, a Palestinian Authority officer ordered myself and another journalist not to take photographs.
Minutes later, additional PA forces arrived in trucks and pushed the demonstrators back, effectively ending the demonstration.
Though the PA has a reputation for brutal crackdowns on Palestinian demonstrations, this incident was rather seamless. The young demonstrators retreated, to the satisfaction of the PA forces.
One young protester put his index fingers parallel to one another and shook his head in shame, stating, “Israel and the PA are together. What can we do?”
Dan Cohen is an independent journalist based in Palestine.