The Invasion - Part II: April 1-2, 2002

Two children dragged the broken metal frame of a cart across the road. They arranged it next to a pile of plastic milk crates and some other small pieces of garbage and stone debris. They were giddy about their endeavor, attempting to make systematic rows of obstructions across the street to Manger Square. I paused to photograph this futile gesture. It was truly truly a saddening sight. These children were building a roadblock for tanks.

Two children dragged the broken metal frame of a cart across the road. They arranged it next to a pile of plastic milk crates and some other small pieces of garbage and stone debris. They were giddy about their endeavor, attempting to make systematic rows of obstructions across the street to Manger Square. I paused to photograph this futile gesture. It was truly truly a saddening sight. These children were building a roadblock for tanks.

For a second time on the afternoon of the 1st of April, the International Solidarity Movement group set out to demonstrate infront of the Israeli APC’s in Beit Jala. My friend and I, lacking much else to do for the afternoon, opted to follow, taking part in the march of other internationals. The march set off from Pope Paul VI street, the main shop row that extends from Manger Square and leads uphill a mile to Beit Jala, through the children’s feeble barriers. This time as we reached the crest of the hill, the APCs were no where to be found, and only their trad tacks etched into the asphalt told of their trail. So we moved on, deep into the little town.

With a burst of deisel a drab-green monster emerged, sporting a small visor canopy with M60s on either side and an Israeli soldier sticking his head out. A bindle of razor wire sat coiled on the front, ready for deployment. This time the Israelis clearly had a plan for thwarting this non-violent march calling for an end to the occupation. After some hand waving, the soldier pulled out his M16 and proceeded to fire warning shots – not into the air, but rather into the pavement infront of us. Immediately an Arabic cameraman with a flak jacket on stepped back, grasping his underarm. Pieces of shrapnel and asphalt had sprayed around the crowd. The front line held however, so the soldier now fired a burst along either wall bordering the street. Amist more screaming, a girl buckled and collapsed. Quick shrieks presumed that she had fainted, until we later discovered that this British woman had been struck from behind by a bullet ricocheting off the wall.The confusion intensified as the APC lurched forward, pushing the demonstration line back. Already gaps had opened up due to people carting off the wounded. Most suffered only light wounds, but a few had shrapnel embedded in them, including a girl from Japan who was struck in three places in her right leg.

Children who had enthusiastically joined our march gave a look of dismay as we moved back slowly. While the front line was maintained by a row of Italians, most of the Palestinians who had followed melted back to their homes. A BBC news crew that had parked its press truck along a sidestreet caught the attention of the gunner in the APC. He yelled at them to join the rest of the march retreated down the hill, but they gestured that they had to stay with their vehicle, and that they were after all the press. This influenced the soldier none, who then shouldered his rifle and fired several bursts at the ground right next to the TV crew. Finally, the journalists obeyed and left their car behind, only to later take another side road to get back to their original positions. Perhaps the worst part was seeing the Palestinian children forced to return to their homes after so gleefully witnessing our resistance. As the APC passed an intersection where many of them had turned, the IDF soldier on top fired a few burst of his machine gun over their fleeing heads.

After returning to Bethlehem following the march, we considered buying some food. This was more of a thought for our immediate dinner needs, rather than a regard to potentially being shut in during an invasion. As all the bread was sold out, we settled on some pretzels, hummus, water and beer. Nothing much to live on, but enough for a night. Without any further word on a possible invasion, we turned in just before Midnight. Gunfire erupted on the fringes of the city at times, but it really wasnt anything unique for the area.

Not long after dozing off a helicopter swung through the area and let off two heavy bursts of its gatling guns, waking me up. I stood by the window with my video camera on hand, but then saw and heard nothing. I proceeded to jump from my bed to try to record any further sounds, but it wasn’t until 4am when things began to pick up. Tank fire echoed through the region almost as rapidly as a machinegun. I ran up to the 5th floor of the hotel, where the rooftop restaurant was located. “Stay away from the windows and keep low,” whispered a voice as I stepped from the elevator. In the darkness I could see nothing, but was pointed to the south where tanks had entered. After a half hour of inactivity, I returned to bed. I thought the invasion was a bust and still figured that my friend and I could take off for the Gaza Strip the next morning. My alarm went off at 7:10am. Time enough to reach Gaza by Noon, easily. I struggled to wake my friend. She didn’t budge. Then a sound. A motor, and metal clanking. Something peeked from behind the bend out the window.

HOLY FUCK! A tank! Its a GODDAMNED TANK!!” I blurted, stumbling backwards away from the window.

My camera caught nothing but my profanities and my clumsy scrambling to run into the hallway. There others emerged from their rooms to the sound while journalists calmly paced already strapped into their body armor and helmets. All of the facing rooms had their doors ajar and we could make out (this being the second floor) through the curtains, the tops of the armored column creak by. A massive Merkava tank was followed by an armored military bulldozer, a second tank and then two APCs, one sporting a Vulcan anti-aircraft gun. An Italian radio journalist stole into our room, where my friend was dressing in the bathroom, to record the sounds. He laid beneath the window with his microphone dangling out. I cautiously stood back, then opted to catch a glimpse. As I carefully peered out the side of the window I saw one of the soldiers in the hatch of an APC move his gun quickly. The Italian scurried away, and I again stumbled over the bed. Shots rang out, hitting the building, but clearly away from our window. He hadn’t seen or aimed at us, but surely some nosey person just got shot at somewhere. I headed downstairs, presuming that was where most of the tired and bewildered foreigners were conglomerating. Straight infront of the stairwell were the glass doors framing a tank sitting outside.

Most people in the lobby and the adjoining TV lounge were on their hands and knees, or hiding behind the small bar in the middle of the floor. “Avoid the windows, stay low and move slowly, ok?” barked a journalist at some of the frightened foreign ISM activists. My heart was pounding, and despite my own mix of fear and excitement (the time when I usually lose most common sense when around gunfire), I really didn’t think the tanks would do anything to a hotel clearly full of foreigners. And part of me thought that if it did, at least Israel’s record would be permanently stained. I took some photos and paused to make a cup of Nescafe, but still hid thinking that I wasnt quite ready for that sacrifice. Down from the stairs came an Al Jazeera camera man, carried by other journalists. He was grasping the back of his neck as they placed him on a couch in the lounge. He was the one struck by flying glass from the machinegun atop an APC earlier.

After most people had gathered, the initial fear and excitement wore off. With the window shades drawn and most journalists busy on their mobile phones, a new normalcy overcame the hotel. The owner, an Arabic speaking East European named Richard, announced how all food was going to be rationed and cooked for mass meals. The ISM activists organized together to contact embassies and to give eachother rules - the type of things that have always made me happy to be on my own in such cases. Well, the embassy calls helped in the end.

The transition from freedom and calm to occupation and panic was swift. I didn’t even have time to make a conscious note of it. The night before I had dismissed the thought that anything dramatic would actually occur. Despite the tank build up, Bethlehem was clearly far from the “terrorist” strong hold of the more militant cities like Tul Karim or Jenin in the north. And the Israelis had already been through the biblical city just three weeks before, barely even ever fully withdrawing. Yet once the fears subsided, I was able to resign myself to having to stay inside the meager hotel as if a torrential storm was crashing outside. And in many ways it was. While the pounding echoes of tankfire and sustained machinegun bursts sounded around the city, rumors of damage poured in from residents with cell phones. One came in claiming that a Father Jack at the St. Maria chapel had been killed by a tank shell. The first casualty we heard of was a priest. Nice going, Israelis. The rumor turned out to be untrue even though the anxious press in the hotel picked it up. The man, along with several nuns had only been wounded by the 105mm tank round. Still, nice going Israelis.

With the electricity cut, and a need to conserve the generator for the nighttime, the hotel grew cold. It was a miserable week for an invasion, as the Middle East was beset by rainstorms and cold winds. The gloom through the windows only added to the air of misery. From the hotel little could be seen. Bethlehem did not become a Stalingrad or even a Beiruit with charred and pockmarked ruins covering the skyline. Instead, the view was just one of a boarded up ghosttown, with the metal doors of shops and homes remaining closed and the rain streaming into the tank tread etchings in the pavement. Even from the windows of the fifth floor, little could be seen. The storm winds howled up there, creating more of a sound of battle than the conflict itself. Down one road to the south a line of parked tanks and other military vehicles could be made out. Otherwise, Bethlehem’s streets were too narrow and the hotel too short to see anything. Yet the evidence of the early morning’s gunfire stood out. Three holes denoted where bullets had pierced when the tanks first drove past. A little later on the lone female Palestinian employee announced that the Omar Mosque opposite the Church of Nativity was burning. Sure enough, from the top floor windows we could make out occassional puffs of white smoke. That was all the war we could see.

As the day drew on, the confinement of occupation became numbing. The generator was turned on allowing for us to catch up on CNN and BBC broadcasts, but it went out within an hour due to failure. My friend and I resigned ourselves to playing cards and pacing back and forth. The ISM activists spent a good deal of time on the phone, calling family as well as staying in touch with other activists who were now trapped in nearby refugee camps. The journalists weren’t much more fun since each attempt at venturing outside for them was met by Israeli warning shots to stay away. A team of three Frenchmen came strolling down the road at one point though, and were quickly ushered inside. The BBC’s young correspondant, James Reynolds began cracking up at the notion that these three cameramen had just walked into Bethlehem and thought nothing of any danger. Now they were trapped with us.

At one point a card game I was involved in was interrupted by a tank. The road outside the hotel had been clear for some time, so the sight of this behemoth parking infront was rather intimidating. Most people feared that the Israelis would move into the hotel, seize the non-press foreigners and have them deported, as had been done to activists in Ramallah two days before. Most people had fled behind walls or down to the ground. But this tank just sat there. The card game resumed. The tank’s turret twitches up and down. People returned to the floor. Nothing. Then the turret swiveled around and pointed dead on at the building at the top of the corner next to the hotel. I entered the panicking fray, proclaiming that the cannon was about to shoot and people fled the windows and clasped their hands to their ears. Nothing. Card game resumed. Turret swung back. Back to the floor. Nothing. Tank moved on. It had its fun. I just wanted to play cards. One of the three French reporters laughed at us. “Christ guys, this isn’t Sarajevo.” He spent the whole time sitting unphased in a chair reading.

Soon night came. The hotel staff announced that they couldn’t fix the generator, namely because an APC around the corner menaced them each time they stepped outside to look at it. Only four candles existed in the vast hotel. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was happy I had so little sleep the night before. An early sleep seemed like the only escape (aided by a 20oz can of Amstel), apart from the quiz games my friend and I played in the darkness.

But to think that every gunshot and tank shell I heard in the background actually landed somewhere?