The nicest thing about the morning of April 3 was the discovery that electricity existed again. This meant working television. Television meant news. News meant information from outside the confines of the Bethlehem Star Hotel.
This information meant, well, the only channel in English in my hotel room: CNN World. So as the sunlight struggled through the dark clouds outside, and the clank of tank treads through the window reminded me of my predicament, I was treated to an interview with CBS’s Dan Rather by Larry King. Larry insisted on reminding me what a remarkable journalist Dan was. Dan opted to inform me about what a warlike situation Israeli controlled Jerusalem was in. Dan noted a car that exploded at a West Jerusalem checkpoint, qualifying him as a war correspondent. Dan! Why aren’t you talking about the tanks crunching their way through my neighborhood? Dan had to know, if not, I would tell him.
While I didn?t have Dan?s phone number, I was able to find CBS News? bureau number in Tel Aviv. With a few quick phone calls it was arranged. CBS News would later on interview myself and my friend about being Americans trapped by an Israeli invasion in Bethlehem. Finally, Dan would know.
In the meantime the hotel was settling into its second day of occupation. I awoke too late for breakfast, but found no shame in eating scraps of bread, cheese and olives left behind on the plates of others. Word came in that a convoy of US Embassy vehicles, slated to rescue willing foreigners still had yet to receive Israeli permission to proceed. The International Solidarity Movement members chatted to friends still stranded in Dehiesheh and other refugee camps or sat reading. The journalists still struggled to make forays towards Manger Square without being shot at by the Israelis. On the television in the lounge, Al Jezeera was interviewing one of the female hotel workers about the situation over a satellite feed. I saw the hotel lobby being broadcast internationally and back into the lobby. We looked bored. Indeed, one of the more frequent videotapings by the host of reporters and a couple amateur filmmakers seemed to be capturing the routines of those trapped in the hotel.
While settling back into the routine of card games, I observed some of the reporters talking about contacting CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Their interest was in filing a protest petition to the Israeli authorities concerning the frequency with which the Israelis were shooting at journalists. This had been evident elsewhere, as CNN’s broadcasts from outside Ramallah confirmed the same thing happening to them there. Every organization represented in the hotel, from the US, UK, France, Italy, Norway and elsewhere signed on. From what I could make of the phone call they placed to Amanpour, CNN had already filed similar complaints. Only slowly did it begin to sink in that if no one knew what was happening in any of these cities, the Israelis must be hiding some horrible things.
Later on, while I tried to survey the scene on the 5th floor, a CBS crew arrived. I had been told earlier that an interview would probably be conducted in Jerusalem, once the US Embassy convoy came. My aim was to try to convey some of the horrors that were taking place in Bethlehem, since it didn’t seem like Dan Rather was going tostick his neck out very far. I was delighted to see this mainstream American film crew ready to see things for themselves. This made the interview they gave my friend and I rather irrelevant. While my friend later said that she felt like we were just whoring ourselves for exposure, I insisted that my intention on having contacted CBS was to see if our vantage point could reach America. But she was right, for as long as the crew had made it to Bethlehem, our story was rendered irrelevant. It probably didn?t help any that I didn?t turn out to me the lost tourist they had been led to believe since I live and work in Gaza City normally.
I had been conscious to keep my political views toned down, thinking that our story would have a better chance of airing that way. I knew that if I said everything I thought, they would find it too radical to broadcast. I was just a ‘tourist’ with no qualifications to allow me to speak on the subject at hand. Indeed, the CBS questions only related to “why did you come here?” “have you been in touch with your family?” and the like. As it turned out, they later did an interview with one of the ISM members, who I hope was able to inject more of a human rights plea than I could. What proved most valuable for me was probably the chance to see the dynamic between the square-jawed reporters who end up on television, and their producers who handle them. The CBS producer, a woman named Katie, did seem to convey sympathies for what the Palestinians were enduring. I just hoped that her own handlers in New York would allow that message to get through.
As the afternoon wore on, the anxiety over evacuation grew. Several of the ISM members opted to stay, while others insisted on leaving. My friend herself needed to leave as she had a flight to catch that very afternoon, although it soon became apparent that she would miss it anyhow. For myself, every wanna-be journalistic desire made me want to stay, not least of all to help serve as an American witness to the events. But I still had to return to work in Gaza, and as this evacuation was a one time offer by the US embassy, there was no telling when I would otherwise have such a chance. At the time of writing this, I believe those left behind without journalist credentials are still in Bethlehem.
More immediately agonizing, however, was the sense that I had not experienced any of the horror on the other end of the gun and tank fire we kept hearing. The hotel felt like an artificial sanctuary, and to not see with my own eyes what was really happening strained my sense of reality. It sounds like posturing to write such at this time, but having spent almost 48 hours in the midst of foreigners in a well stocked hotel began to feel artificial, especially given what was happening around me. I couldn’t even work on my Arabic in the place.
So to satisfy my craving to see some of what was happening I made some vain attempts at following the journalists who headed out. I briefly tailed an excursion of the BBC and CBS crews just to the corner of Pope Paul VI street, but they beat a hasty retreat under warning shots not long after. About an hour later we could see straight down the road two Israeli APCs with soldiers standing around watching us whenever we stepped out the front door of the hotel. One of the ISM members insisted that when he once stepped out for air, one of the Israelis sighted him with a laser scope. Finally word came through that a lone ambulance was being let through to retrieve the bodies of three people who had been killed the day before in their homes ? and all the journalists were gearing up to follow.
My friend and I stood outside after the reporters departed, debating about following. A lone Italian journalist in body armor started past, having been left behind. Seeing me with my camera, he called back, “Well, c’mon! Hurry up!” I sensed that he didn’t want to be running the gauntlet alone as journalists in war zones find safety in numbers. I ran ahead. What was I doing? I didn?t know. My friend followed as well, but as we rounded the corner on to Pope Paul VI street, she realized she didn’t have her passport on her, so she thought it best to return. I thought about not having a press card, but more immediately, my concern was being shot.
Every time I thought that I should turn back, the Italian pressed on. He seemed bothered that my friend left, and then began to run ahead. I considered my situation. I didn?t know where he was running to. I didn’t know where the ambulance or the other journalists were, or if there were Israelis checking them out. Furthermore, Israeli snipers might be eyeing me. I didn?t even know if it was safe to turn back at that point. I became pensive, and found that the only thing that kept me going was the fear of being left behind by the Italian. Darting through the empty streets and past a small Millenial monument that had been run over I stopped to pick up a shell casing out of a pile of hundreds. As Pope John VI street branched into two market streets we veered to the right, running through deep pools of brown water. A water pipe along the other branch was spraying a torrent of water from through a bullet hole in the middle of it. Once I started passing cars blown up by tank shells and then flattened by treads it all began to sink in.
Finally, as we caught up to the scene with the ambulance, the sounds hit me before anything else. I felt that I was in a dreamlike state. The ambulance?s siren pulsed at full volume, beginning to match my heartbeat. Solitary screams and cries echoed down the narrow market street, against the newly layed stones donated to Bethlehem for its Mellenial celebrations that never were. Who was crying? Everyone looked stunned. The residents seemed to move slowly as the journalists and medics rushed about, carting a body wrapped in a blanket. The warzone felt like a backdrop of props for a play. It was a stage of rubble, debris, blackened car parts, bullet casings, and eyes ? eyes were everywhere, just staring out at everything and nothing.
I stopped moving a few meters from the ambulance, stood and just turned in place. While the actual journalists busied themselves with getting good camera shots of the bodies being brought out, I could only look around and absorb the entirety of the scene. I had seen mass devastation before, but never so immediately after the fact, and never with the dead still present. I felt dizzy. I couldn’t quite register the scene. My mind began to filter out the sounds. I could tell that I was about to cry. Journalist mode, journalist mode. I had to turn off my feelings and just document it all as best I could.
It was quite apparent that the ambulance’s arrival heralded the first chance any of the residents had to venture outside. Their shock was as real as mine. Bethlehem had been invaded before, but never quite like this. The metal gate doors for the shops had all been torn off or ripped open by some great force. The locks for the double doors for apartments had been shot open, cut apart by machinegun fire. I found others simply torn from their frames. Almost every single window along the second stories of the buildings was shattered and splintered. I noted that the cars, compressed like nothing I had before seen by tanks had also been raked by gunfire. The Israelis machinegunned the cars before crushing them with their Merkava tanks. What for? A woman begins yelling at me in Arabic. She points to a box on the side of a building, shot open and with cut wires. The Israelis took out the telephone exchanges for the buildings. A little down the street, and electrical box hadalso been ripped open.
Everyone just stood around, mouths agape, looking at the carnage. One storefront had been completely ripped off, metal frame and most of the cynder blocks included. The crying came from the family of the Abdehs, where the mother, Samieh and her adult son, Khaled had been shot to death in their homes thirty hours before, yet only now could the bodies be removed. The Palestinian Red Crescent medics had to place three corpses into the back of the ambulance, which already was carrying three wounded people. It was evident that these weren?t real ambulances in the true sense, but rather empty vans without any emergency equipment installed.
I wandered back and forth along just about one block. Beyond an archway, framed by the twisted wrecks of three cars, was the road towards Manger Square. As none of the journalists dared to venture that way, I didn?t look any further. Seeing as how the carnage worsened as one went deeper into town, I could only imagine what lay beyond. I headed back to the ambulance. My foot stepped over a dented gas mask filter. What was this doing here? As I picked it up for inspection, a voice yelled at me. “Young man! Do not touch anything. Especially if you see wires. There could be bombs here.” Yeah, I know, UXO (unexploded ordinance) and all. There went my professional credibility. I returned to taking photographs.
After surveying the block again, I found that most of the journalists opted to leave the area as the ambulance pulled out. A few remained to conduct more interviews, so I continued my meandering. One car had been so througoughly destoyed, it was unrecognizable as a mass of blackened, crushed metal. A teenager with a stern look on his face began piling some of the loose fragmants onto the rest of the heap. Then there was the sound of the truck. The residents all scurried back to their homes. “I have to go, tank is coming,” one explained. It turned out to be perhaps an Israeli jeep along another road, but the terror among the Palestinians was quite evident.
As I began heading back a young Palestinian began asking in fluent English me if I had seen the Abdeh family. I told him yes, at which point he said that his neighbor would like to show me her home. I began to consider the fact that the remaining journalists were leaving, but followed the woman into her home anyway. I grew more nervous about being stranded in the war zone as I ascended the stairs. The young man assured me, “Don’t worry. Ill tell your friends to wait,” and he yelled something out the shattered stairwell window in Arabic. Shards of glass covered the inside of the woman’s tiny apartment. All of her windows facing the street in two rooms had been systematically shot out. Thankfully, it seemed, the bullets fired from below arced to the ceiling, but the glass still shattered all over the beds. “This is where the children stayed,” the man explained, “They are lucky to not be hurt.” It was a bad scene, but not so terrible as the smashed apartments and stores along the first floor.
The woman?s upstairs neighbor then wanted me to see the shot out windows in his apartment. I had to go. I became overly anxious about being left behind. And sure enough, as I stepped out of the apartment building, I was alone. I scurried back towards the hotel, running past any open alleyways and trying to hold my camera up to denote who I was. At this point, with no insignia and perhaps only my bright white face to denote my nationality, I easily could have been shot down. About two blocks ahead, I finally caught up with the others. Again, not very professional of me.
Once back in the hotel, I collapsed into a chair. Maintaining an air of indifference just to be able to record such a tragedy became incredibly difficult. I again had to keep my emotional response from overwhelming me. I viewed the video footage I had shot with my friend, but already I could tell that it was impossible to fully fathom what I had originally felt. I had to ask her how long I was gone for as I couldn’t register time at all it seemed. Still, I had to understand that I had seen just a one or two block stretch for 15 minutes in only the second day of reoccupation. The Palestinians were seeing - indeed living through, things far more intense.