Christmas in Bethlehem

At the last minute, at the end of the day before Christmas Eve, the Israeli government announced it would lift its curfew of Bethlehem. This was another move in the endless game of Israeli propaganda, and one that was expected. Thousands of eyes were on Bethlehem, the West Bank city that has been under curfew and reinvasion for the past month.

For the second year in a row the Israeli government did not allow President Arafat to move the 13 miles from Ramallah to Bethlehem. There is a chair inside the Church of Nativity with a photo of Arafat and a kafia sitting on it. The entire West Bank remains under curfew and reinvasion. The Israeli military did not leave Bethlehem, just remained out of sight of the cameras. They occupied five high buildings throughout the Bethlehem area, using them as watchtowers and sniper posts. Israeli military jeeps drove through the streets and around the camps.

The night before Christmas Eve, Israeli soldiers took 8 Palestinians from their homes and dumped them in Israeli detention for interrogation. The next night it was seven. On Christmas night Israeli soldiers abducted ten Palestinians. The Israeli military government is holding over 8,000 Palestinians hostage in its prisons.

Today, the day after Christmas, the Israeli military took over Manger Square again. They began shooting and firing gas. They were yelling from their jeep loudspeakers that curfew was reimposed. Some of Bethlehem’s residents resisted by throwing stones for two hours.

Last week in Bethlehem’s Azzeh refugee camp, 50 Israeli soldiers stormed into a sleeping household, one that has welcomed me as their sister and daughter for the past year. One of the sons, living on the second of three floors, went to his door. He called out, “I’m unarmed, I’m opening the door now.” He’s telling me this, everyone in the family has told me the way it went for them, saying, “I didn’t know, you know, they could have shot me right then. We don’t ever know if they’re gonna kill all of us.”

The Israeli soldiers ran into the house and demanded that everyone come outside. They put their guns in the backs of the family and pushed at those who live on the upper floors. They searched the blankets that the babies were wrapped in.

One of the women is pregnant. One son has a mental disability. The mother and father are elderly. The entire family was forced to stand in the camp alley way with their hands on the cement wall. It was 2 o’clock in the morning, a winter night.

The Israelis took one of the sons. He wears glasses, writes poems, laughs out loud, makes good coffee, listens to music. He’s a student. Israeli soldiers blindfolded him and bound his hands. They stuffed him in the back of a jeep. The kids were calling out goodbye. He is in an Israeli prison now, without charge. The father and all of the sons in the family, save for two, have been abducted in this way. His mother is sobbing throughout all of this. It’s enough.

A soft-spoken man who used to live in Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip until the Israeli military demolished his Block O house in order to build their separation wall, tells me, “You know really,” he pauses for a long time, “I’m afraid now that we are just all wanted.”

The night before Christmas Eve the Israeli military demolished thirty houses in Rafah. Tanks fired into the houses, the families ran out, and the bulldozers ripped through. There was not even a half second of notice.

Kristen Ess is a political activist and freelance journalist from New York City, who has lived in the West Bank and Gaza since March 2002, where she does solidarity work and reports for Free Speech Radio news and Left Turn magazine.