Children in Bethlehem under siege

Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers invade Bethlehem on 6 April 2002 (Photo: Marla Ruzicka/CCMEP, 2002)

When his alarm clock goes off every day at 6am, Saif, my 11-year-old son, barely moves his body out of his bed. His mother and I must go to extraordinary lengths to get him up and ready to go to school. This was never the case before.

Saif studies in the Lutheran Church School in Beit Sahour, which is also known as the “Shepherds Field” according to the Bible. Located east of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour is the last Christian majority town in Palestine and used to enjoy the reputation of having the smallest percentage of immigration. This is also not the case any more.

Long before the second Intifada began, Saif and the other children in our area noticed that their lives were changing when the Abu Ghnaim Mountain, historically owned by Palestinians from Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, was confiscated to build a Jewish colony on its green land.

Located less than one kilometer from our cooperative housing project, the Abu Ghnaim mountain is home to many Christian holy sites including St. Theodore’s Well, the 5th and 6th century Byzantine monastery and church of Bir Oadisum which marks the place where St. Mary dismounted before giving birth to Jesus.

The geographical location of the mountain gave it such importance that, in 1967, Israel decided to annex it to the Jerusalem Municipal boundaries and, despite its historical and religious importance, built the Har Homa colony. This colony now contains about 6,500 housing units in high-rise buildings with standard infrastructure such as roads, schools, and shops in addition to hotels, a tourist village, and industrial zones to accommodate thirty to forty thousands Jewish settlers.

This Israeli decision, which was made before the second Intifada started, has had fatal consequences to Christians and Muslims living in the area. It turned our peaceful neighborhood into a war zone and plays a major role in limiting the ability of people in Beit Sahour to expand forcing them to immigrate outside their country.

For decades, the Palestinian people have been struggling to gain the independence and self-determination denied by the Israeli military occupation. The first Intifada in 1987 failed to achieve its objectives; the second Intifada, launched in 2000, has been far bloodier than the previous. Israel has been criticized heavily for excessive use of force against Palestinian civilians employing, among other things, heavy artillery. Their tactics have had terrible results. Since September 29, 2000, which was the declared beginning of the Intifada, more than 2,700 Palestinians have been killed. 493 of them were children. More than 47,000 have been injured and 2,500 of these will be permanently disabled.

The first Israeli shelling of Beit Sahour and our neighborhood occurred in October 2000 and affected Saif badly. Once the most disciplined and liveliest child, he used to like going to school and took part in many activities with the church youth and scouts. But then the second Intifada started and he began to change. He became withdrawn and frightened; his first severe nightmare occurred when the Israeli occupation army raided our town in 2001.

In 2002, it was impossible for Saif not to notice the beginning of the construction the Israeli Occupation Authorities call a security fence and we call the Apartheid Wall. It was being built not 100 meters from our home and the noise of the bulldozers and military vehicles invade our home from early morning to late at night. From his room’s window, he would stand sadly for long periods every day observing the wall grow.

They started with the trees. Olive trees, which were more than 500 years old, were uprooted, rubbed and taken to be replanted in Israeli settlements. He listened to us talking with our neighbors about the concrete wall that was 650 kilometers in length and 8 meters high. He listened to discussions of the armed watchtowers and a “buffer zone” 30-100 meters wide with electric fences, barbed wire, high steel wires, trenches, cameras, sensors, and security roads along both sides of the fence for military patrols. He learned, by listening, that this wall and its buffer zone would annex more than 50% of our land and turn our neighborhoods into enclaves and military zones.

He heard the worry in our voices as he listened to the stories of some of my international friends who visited us and spoke about this wall, which has been completed in other parts of the West Bank. He listened carefully to the story of the village Jayous, near Jenin.

The villagers and farmers there were denied the right to reach their land even though the Israeli military had created “gates” in the Wall. The gates do not provide farmers access to their land but instead strengthen Israel’s strangling system of permits and checkpoints where Palestinians are beaten, detained, shot at and humiliated. He realized before his time what a ghetto means and that his small dream for a shiny future would not grow further.

Saif, with his innocent understanding, noticed the change without needing further explanation. To keep him safe, his mother and I stopped allowing him to be on the streets after dark or to go to downtown on his own.

This was hard enough on him but then we had to tell him that he could not play with his friends in the nearby Orthodox Housing project because the Israeli army was threatening to demolish it. This housing project had been essential for the Christians in Beit Sahour since it secured and safeguarded their land and gave them hope for the future.

The Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem leased a plot of its land in 1995 to the Orthodox congregation in Beit Sahour for ninety-nine years to construct a total of sixteen buildings containing one hundred and twenty housing units.

Beit Sahour at large and our area in particular, has been adversely affected by this wall since the Israelis decided to build it near both housing projects and issued a military order to stop the construction of the sixteen buildings and some other individual houses. Five months after the beginning of the wall, the Israelis made the decision to demolish the entire Orthodox Housing project. Fortunately, international and local pressure on the Israeli Authorities was able to freeze the decision but this did not prevent the Israeli army from continuously entering the area to systematically harass and scare its residents.

Saif’s nightmares became worse when the Israelis reoccupied our area surrounding the Church of the Nativity for more than 45 days in April 2003. He told me that he dreams that Israeli settlers and soldiers are raiding our area and they shoot, killing both his mother and me and destroying the house over our heads. At that time, a curfew was imposed on Beit Sahour; no one was allowed out and no one was allowed in.

The schools were closed as they have been on and off from the beginning of the Intifada; since October 2000, the schools in our town have been closed for more than one hundred days. Saif started to spend more and more time in front of the TV watching news, following the daily casualty count and keeping track of the army movements in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. He was no longer willing to sleep alone although he wanted to spend more time by himself and became more and more isolated but he missed playing sports with his classmates the most. One Sunday, we decided together with other people from Beit Sahour to challenge the curfew and go to church.

At the church, people spoke about their frustration with the silence of the international community especially in relation to the Israelis closing and surrounding the Church of the Nativity, which was done almost without intervention from the Christian World. Despite the daily suffering and misery, Saif is happy about one thing; he is happy that I am able to spend more time with him than ever before. The reason for this, however, is because I cannot go to my office in Jerusalem regularly. That city is closed for West Bankers like me.

My work at as Executive Director of the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) demands me to be in Jerusalem and other places in the West Bank on a daily basis to monitor projects as we respond to the needs of the Palestinian people who are in dire need of help and support. The restrictions on movement imposed on the Palestinians have affected this work severely since no one is allowed to move from one area to another without a permit. People stand for hours and hours in front of the military bases to get such permits but most of the time without success. The humiliation, insults and ill treatment of the people at the checkpoints and roadblocks do not encourage any Palestinian to be on the street for any reason.

Initiatives such as ones implemented by the YMCA give hope that one day peace with justice will prevail in the land of peace; they give hope to Saif and other children from both nations, that they will be able to enjoy a peaceful and prosperous life. For now, though, Saif needs more encouragement than just his alarm clock to get out of bed in the morning.

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    Rifat Odeh Kassis is the Executive Director of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the President of Defense for Children International - Palestine Section. This reflection was first published in the yearbook of the Council on International Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark (ELCD in December 2003) and reprinted with the author’s permission.