In Exile: Bethlehem to Gaza

In Bethlehem the air in the streets is hesitatingly chaotic. It cannot recover from the 2 month long invasion of the Bethlehem area while under a constant Israeli military occupation. Most residents are not allowed to leave, surrounded by Israeli checkpoints, illegal settlements, and settler by-pass roads chopping up and choking the area. Despite the international media reports that it was a day of celebration in Bethlehem when the Israeli military ended its siege on the Church of Nativity in April, I have yet to locate anyone who did not experience the day as intensely tragic.

Although Israel ignored UN Security Resolution 1402 demanding its withdrawal from West Bank cities, including Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity, they did not leave the center of Bethlehem until over a month later, taking with them many Palestinians who were banished from their homes, families, their homeland. I have been repeatedly told that it was the end of the hope.

The Israelis would not even allow those being banished to say goodbye to their families or their friends. The “deal” struck, exiling and banishing many Palestinians, was a criminal act and another devastating blow to an already persecuted population.

Now, as the daily struggle continues, several factions in Bethlehem, via political parties and families, are divided. The past two weeks have seen shootings, beatings, arrests, and daily meetings. A young man working for a community center in an area refugee camp says, “The Israelis have us exactly where they want to put us.” The divide and conquer strategy to destroy the collective will of the Palestinian people is, in some eyes, working. This is exacerbated by the continuing closure of the city from the rest of the West Bank and constant Israeli threat. This morning in a camp a man looking haggard told me, “I tried to go to my class, yes, but they closed the checkpoint again.”

The families of those exiled from the Church of Nativity continue to suffer as well. A 27 year old woman, who told me with a slight laugh that really she is 72, sits in her living room holding her new baby, born days after her husband was banished to the essential prison of Gaza. Her two sons are old enough at 3 and 7 years to know what has happened. One, who looks exactly like his father, stands on his head and asks me to go to Gaza and bring his dad back. The other does not stop crying. No one knows when or if he’ll be allowed by Israel to see his family again. She tells me it’s been 9 months. The Israeli soldiers would not allow them to say goodbye.

She showed me how small she could become to fit inside my bag in order to go to Gaza and see her husband. Her eyes and round, she’s taken up smoking and has her hair cut short. She told me she cries everyday. I held their new baby, named after their friend banished from Palestine altogether. The friend is under house arrest in Europe.

Now I am sitting in Gaza City in the father’s new home only a couple hours drive from the Bethlehem refugee camp where his wife and his children wait. It is another universe for them because the Israeli’s will not allow most Palestinians to use their own roads, and have destroyed the two airports; one was in Gaza, the other in Ramallah. Between Bethlehem and Gaza, as in other areas, Israel has built a highway off limits to most Palestinians. It is impossible for a Palestinian to enter or exit the Gaza Strip, surrounded by Israeli soldiers, tanks, barbed wire, and cement walls. This is one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Palestinians are hemmed in with a constant threat and daily harassment by Israel.

Within the strip illegal Israeli settlements continue to expand, “protected” by a bulging army of Israelis paid for by the U.S. Under international law and the Oslo Accords, all Israeli settlements are illegal, but Israel continues to flaunt its power by building more which house many Israeli gunmen who hide behind their children and their god as they shoot at Palestinians.

Trying to reach Khan Younis refugee camp in the south of the Gaza Strip, where Israel bulldozes houses and shoots with F-16s, where children are killed almost daily, took five hours before I gave up. It is only a half hour away, but the Israelis closed Abu Ali checkpoint, which divides the Strip. Only illegal Israeli settlers are allowed to pass. We drove on a bumpy road — all Palestinian infrastructure destroyed as soon as it is repaired — under a settler road, a smooth and quick highway with few cars and only green lights.

I waited with at least 3,000 Palestinians and a well over a thousand cars, in the dust and dirt and heat, and watched the sunset across the land that has been stolen from them. At 9:30, Israeli soldiers began to shoot at the crowds of Palestinians waiting. Thirteen Palestinians were injured, and four were arrested, their fate unknown. The moon was full over the Mediterranean, the sea that most Palestinians have never even been able to see. Illegal Israeli settlements take the choice land, and many line the coast.

The man from the Church, one of the hunted, is exiled and waiting to return to his family. He knows no one in Gaza except for the other exiles. He cannot find work, there is almost none in Gaza because of the prison condition of the Israeli imposed borders around and within the Gaza Strip. Commerce is almost at a halt. Unemployment nears eighty percent. He is studying in the University and told me he does not think about the future because he does not know what will happen. He tells me that this is the life, or just looks up toward the sky with the same eyes as his son, shrugs, and says Alah. He says to know how long your prison sentence will be is the only way to not go crazy, but here for those sent away from their homes, their families, their land, no one knows when their exile will end.

Israeli soldiers killed eight Palestinians in Rafah, leaving two elderly Palestinian women dead and bloodied on one of the camp’s narrow dirt roads. The day before yesterday, some Palestinians responded to the murders by destroying an Israeli bus. The international media spent hours speaking about the bus.

This afternoon the Israeli’s destroyed three Palestinian homes in Rafah’s refugee camp. The camp is near the border with Egypt. The Israeli’s are moving further in. Already the area closest to the border is uninhabitable due to Israeli military attacks. No one covered this story except the Palestinians who gave it just a mention because it is so common here.

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.