On Friday, March 29 while sitting in an Armenian coffee shop in Jerusalem’s Old City, a radio broadcast came on in Arabic with gunfire in the background. Something was amiss, and all the owner could tell us was that it involved Ramallah.
The attacks had begun on the very day I had hoped to pay a visit to the city with my friend visiting from Belgium. After frantically running around the service taxi stands, looking for a ride to Ramallah and finding nothing, I had to reconsider our plans. I couldn’t give up my vacation from Gaza City like this, and had to get into the West Bank. If I couldn’t go north to Ramallah, then it would be south to Hebron, my old favorite hotspot where I spent four nights last year.
We hopped into a cramped service taxi headed that way and were dropped off at a newly fortified Israeli checkpoint south of Jerusalem. People had to cue up in a line to enter, one by one, through a cordon where an Israeli soldier checked papers. There was no searching of bags here, just residency information. When I approached with my US passport out, the Israeli soldier gave me an emphatic, “No, it is too dangerous.” I insisted on our travel to Bethlehem for the Easter holiday and that such danger was our own problem, not his. “I already paid for this trip. I want to go to Bethlehem,” I insisted. “I want to go to California,” he shrugged back. After a few minutes of this, another IDF soldier took his place. He gave me another few lines of refusal and then briskly waved us through. A sudden, “OK, go!” and we were in.
I told a waiting cab driver to take us to Beit Jala rather than Bethlehem. Beit Jala, a neighboring town, had been the sight of fierce cross-valley gun battles with the Israeli settlement of Gilo over the past year. I thought it would be a good introduction of Palestine for my friend. We had the fortune of having Khaled Abu Mahamed as our driver. Once he found out we were Americans, he insisted on having us over for tea. Unfortunately, this Arab hospitality was skewed by the taxi-driver arrogance of insisting on taking us to every hotel but the one we requested - and charging us for doing so.
Once at Khaled’s home, we were shown footage from Ramallah and the ugly tape of an Egyptian cameraman being shot in the mouth while filming. Khaled proceeded to introduce us to his sons and daughters, although the later hid away behind a door and only occasionally peeked out. Khaled broke into one of the usual lectures I have grown accustomed to here about Israeli occupation, but he began
a rant against other Arab leaders too. “They are all asleep!” he insisted, emphasizing his words with body gestures. “No good at all.”
I asked of Syria’s Bashar Assad. “He is ok sometimes… But only Saddam Hussein can help us!” He then explained how Islam was a religion of only peace and did not allow for the
killing of others or themselves but have now been so maltreated in Palestine, his eldest son was quick to remind us about the Christians who lived there too.
I have so often been bewildered by the religious-right in America being so adamantly pro-Israeli when some of Christianity’s oldest communities also suffer in Palestine. After tea, Khaled tried to take us to a number of different hotels even after we had told him about staying at the Nativity Hotel, at the entrance to Beit Jala.
The woman there warned us about a possible incursion by Israelis since a suicide bomber from the Deheisha Refugee camp opposite Bethlehem had just blown herself up. We were wet and tired. My friend just wanted warmth, and I wanted to be in Beit Jala. The caretaker at Nativity Hotel was a stocky Christian woman who had been all alone in the elegant building since the only occupant, a journalist, was on leave.
She shuffled off to bring us coffee and a heater where we could rest and watch Palestinian television broadcasts discuss Ramallah and the latest female suicide bomber. “Stupid! Just stupid that they do that,” the caretaker went on, brining us steaming coffee. “These people are crazy with the violence. Before this, the Israelis could come from Gilo and buy things in our markets, but now never again.” We asked her about the potential for an invasion and the situation with Gilo at present. From the windows, the settlement that the Israelis call a “suburb” of Jerusalem stands out from nearby Palestinian towns with its mass-produced identical apartment blocks. The summer before, I had toured the facing part up the hill on the edge of Beit Jala where Israeli tanks had pounded several buildings into rubble from across the valley. The caretaker said that the Israelis had come through in tanks several times before, but that the Christians in the town never fired on them so that we would be safe if it happened again. She ran over to a window and pointed to the spot where tanks had before parked. “They cannot shoot here because there is a petrol station right there. Even the Israelis won’t do that.”
The attack began that night with the sound of a loud tank shell or mortar explosion just as we stood on the porch of the hotel. The building’s owner was visiting, having just returned from Chicago. He was eager to sell his hotel, presuming that there would never be good business in Bethlehem as it was before. When I told him that I worked at a human rights agency I think I gave him the laugh of his life. “Human rights!? Here? Hah! Here in Palestine? What do you do, look with a microscope for the human rights?” I really couldn’t debate him on that one. That night the shooting ensued as Israeli APC’s occupied most of Beit Jala, but not down to our hotel. On the morning of the 30th, we were unsure what the situation was. But while eating breakfast (at around noon) we heard a group chanting down the road. It was the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an amalgamation of international citizens who were based in both Ramallah and Bethlehem to stage demonstrations against Israeli rule. They were headed to the Armored Personnel Carriers at the top of the hill and we opted to follow.
The protest brought me face to face with Israeli armored vehicles fro the first time. I had seen them hidden at checkpoints, or being transported through Jerusalem, but never in front of me, prepared for action. Two APCs sat at the crest of the hill outside the center of Beit Jala. An Israeli soldier sat in the hatch of one of them looking completely confused. He had not expected this.
About four soldiers fanned out of the back, looked around and returned to their vehicle. The march surrounded the APCs, chanting with heavy Italian accents, “Shahrooon, you weiill see, Palestinia weiill be freee!” I think I was as perplexed as the IDF soldier at that one. After waving at us to leave though, the soldier atop the APC decided to drop a canister in front of us. Immediately, given my protest experience in the States, thought that this was a tear gas canister. I took a step forward, considering kicking it down hill when it exploded as a stun grenade, or flash- bang as they are also called.
My reaction was broadcast that night on Al-Jazeera as I saw from a TV later on. The result for the crowd was minimal, but this lasted only until machine gun fire was heard above as a third APC rumbled down from the town center. With no intention of stopping, and firing more bursts over our heads, the crowd dispersed. Thinking that this was the extent of the Israeli operations around Bethlehem, my friend and I decided to move on to Hebron.
Hebron is only twenty miles south of Bethlehem, however since the main roads are only for Israelis, it takes Palestinians about 1 1/2 hours to make the trip, with several switches of taxis. When I had made the journey the year before, I only had to change taxis once, just outside Hebron, crossing an Israeli settler-only road. This time, the route was more circuitous, and involved an extra ten minute walk between an extra taxi exchange. These are considered “checkpoints” even though there are no Israelis watching the operation. At each location, the Israelis had dug up the roads, forcing the Palestinians to get out and walk to the next taxi stand. This does nothing to prevent the shipping of goods - it only delays it and raises costs. And without any Israelis watching us, how could it interfere with a suicide bomber’s moves? The only thing such checkpoints do is delay people, goods and make it very hard for the elderly and infirm to get from city to city. At the point where pedestrians disembark to cross the Israeli roads on foot, several trucks are busy unloading by hand, food to be taken across by carts to another waiting truck. This duplicity in shipping must have enormous costs on Palestinian businesses.
Hebron is the great divided city where violence is common as some 400 extremist Israeli settlers insisted on living in the city proper, among some 130,000 Palestinians. When Hebron was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, the IDF maintained control over the 400 settlers and continued to occupy the 10,000 Arabs that live around them. Hence, one can walk over a simple sand mound to go from Palestinian to Israeli control. Naturally, gun battles and clashes are frequent. The people who suffer here though are the Palestinians in the Israeli areas, as they are put under strict 24-hour curfews at any time there is violence. The Israeli settlers are never put under curfew even if the violence is initiated by them.
Right from the hotel, we set out down Faisal Street to see the Israeli occupied section. After only two minutes of walking towards Hebron’s Old City, massive explosions rang out as people fled the scene. A bomb struck only 50 yards ahead of us against a fence. I could only duck and offer profanities wondering how a tank shell or bomb had struck so close - yet no Israelis were in sight. A car driver approaching from a side street gave me a stark glance, wondering if it was safe for him to pass. Later that night as we watched Abu Dhabi television, we saw footage showing Israeli troops firing grenade launchers indiscriminately down the same street - simply to scare off pedestrians. This overly effective crowd control also including the spraying of machine gunfire. We saw the evidence of this in trash cans, telephone boxes, food carts and cars riddled with bullets, even though Palestinian gunmen hid out in tall buildings and only civilians were on the street.
A few local journalists in body armor ran ahead as we inched forward. In such situations I happily tout myself as a journalist, even though we never went far enough to see any actual fighting - just the sounds of gunfire and the sights of people running for their lives. We hung around the same area watching an unarmed Tanzim (civil defence) man run back and forth getting reports off his walkie-talkie. I looked to him to understand my safety. When motorized sounds roared and heavy gunfire crescendoed, he ran, so I ran too. My friend and I ducked into a stairwell that led to several apartments. There, while waiting out the battle, a family offered us lawn chairs and tea. The father insisted that we could sleep in his home if we needed. At one point a friend of his gave the man a jolt by clapping his hands loudly behind him. Having seen such humor in teenagers before, I was pleased to see the adults taking things lightly too. Eventually we emerged from hiding to sit on the street again. Teenage boys went ahead to inspect battle damage, while other children presumed that rolling giant bullet-riddled water cisterns
down the road might draw more gunfire. Boys will be boys. With most of the shops closed, we struggled to find bread and other food for dinner and holed up in the hotel.
On the 31st Hebron seemed quiet. We had just settled into a cafe where I used to frequent the year before when some gunfire shook us from our sense of security. I had hoped to walk straight into the Israeli controlled Old City, but seeing the nearby market deserted gave us a sign to stay away. Instead we walked along the eastern heights of Hebron where I had toured homes the year before that had been hit by erratic Israeli gunfire. As American tourists in a virtual warzone, people were delighted to see us and we had tea with one gentleman and his friends in what seemed to be a completely empty store with a shell hole in one side. They invited us to stay for dinner, but I insisted on needing to finish our tour first. Hopping over a gravel pile denoting the city’s dividing point, we took a road heading near the Tomb of Abraham. Part mosque, part synagogue, and supposedly housing the body of Abraham, it is a highly religious site to both communities. It was also the location of Barruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 worshiping Muslims. While we walked downhill, four IDF soldiers surprised us as they left the home of an old Muslim woman.
They checked our passports and assumed that we were innocent tourists. Since they spoke no English they just mentioned something about ‘danger’ and moved on. Once they were out of site I tried to ask the old woman about why they had been in her home, but she could only complain in Arabic to me.
The Old City was just down the hill and we found it completely deserted, save for a few children darting from one house to another. Every shop front was closed, and most had been vandalized with graffiti in Hebrew, which people had previously told me amounts to “Arabs Leave!”, courtesy of the Israeli settlers.
At this point I seriously feared either being shot by Israeli soldiers who we surprised in the winding streets, or having stones thrown at us by Palestinian children living there. Neither happened as the city was incredibly quiet. Our wandering was only interrupted by a plump grenade of some kind laying intact on the walkway. It looked too rotund for a military grenade, but had in English around a band reading “Danger! Grenade”. It was probably an unexploded gas bomb, but we still took care to turn our heads away while walking past it. Just part of the tour, I presume. When we did accidentally walk into an Israeli checkpoint, we feigned innocence about looking for a particular person. An English speaking Ethiopian Israeli was of no help, and let us go on our way.
Emerging out of the Old City, but still in the Israeli controlled zone, I had hoped to find the Jaber family which I had eaten dinner with last July. This meant walking carefully through Hebron’s streets, careful to avoid site of the Israeli gun positions, patrolling jeeps, and remembering to greet every Palestinian peering out through a window. Sometimes children could be found playing in a road, only to scurry away at the sound of an approaching Israeli truck. Oddly, we were passed several times by settler vans escorted by Israeli jeeps and police without being stopped. If the Israelis thought we were Jewish
settlers, it meant that the local Palestinians didn’t trust us at all and were wary of my search for the Jaber family. It didn’t help any that in Palestinian towns, families live by clans and so the entire area was filled with Jabers. Finally, after calling out to a man in a window, we were taken inside and Atef Jaber, was called over.
Atef explained that it took him two minutes to cross the street, waiting for patrols to pass and for Israeli troops keeping watch in an adjacent building to look away. For the next several hours, as we were treated to tea and cucumbers at one home, and a mansef dinner at Atef’s, all I could do is wonder just how they managed to live under 24-hour curfews. Atef noted that for only about one month total in the past ten had the Palestinians under Israeli control in Hebron been allowed out. Otherwise, they have been granted some three hours to buy supplies once a week when under curfew. He explained that they spend time just sitting with their families and watching television. As we sat and heard about the latest suicide bombing in Haifa, Atef explained how it was for the Palestinians. It was the same speech I’ve heard before, but cast in a much more emphatic and elegant tone (Although this is clearly a result of my not knowing Arabic).
“All we want to do here is live. But we have to have a life with honor. If we cannot live with honor, than we would rather die - and to die with honor,” he began, casting a dark tone over the conversation. “The girl who blew herself up the other day… So young and beautiful. She should have been thinking about school, about having a husband, about having a home and a family. But in Palestine she could not think about her life since it is so difficult a situation with the occupation. She decided to die and to have the Israelis feel some of the pain she did. We don’t want to do this, we don’t want any more blood or death. But until Israel starts letting us live with freedom, we have no choice.”
After dinner as it grew dark, we had to leave the Jaber’s and hurry back to the “safety” of unoccupied Hebron. In the darkness, neither the Israelis nor local Palestinians would know who we were, so the danger grew considerably. This was compounded by the absolute confusion of Hebron’s windy hill roads, many of which took us to dead ends. At one point, I was gleeful that we had evaded sight of an Israeli outpost by hugging close to a building, only to find that we had to backtrack, as the turn we took went nowhere. After some twenty minutes of walking, wandering, and having to turn down offers of tea because of the time (“Good evening. To stood meters from our hotel, we noticed a pickup truck slowing down to eye us.
The driver stepped out and dismissed my greetings with a blunt “Who are you?” After explaining that we were journalists staying at the Amanah Hotel, his face did a 180, and he departed with a smiling, “Welcome to Hebron!” I learned that I couldn’t blame him for wondering if rogue Israeli settlers (or Shin Bet agents) wander into the wrong parts of town.
On the next day word came out that Bethlehem had been surrounded by tanks. Since we had to pass that way on the long, indirect route back to Jerusalem (intending to go to Gaza), we opted to stop by, getting out in Manger Square. There, the Square was packed with eager journalists and nervous looking Palestinian soldiers. Although an invasion was rumored to be coming that night, I had my doubts, given the validity of most rumors I had dealt with in Gaza. We took up residence at the Bethlehem Star Hotel, simply because of the price options. We looked at two hotels on Manger Square, one of which was run by monks without televisions and the other being too expensive - a decision that would have great impact on our next few days. At the Bethlehem Star however, were the throngs of ISM activists and journalists, getting in our way and already occupying the best rooms. A BBC contingent outlined for us where the Israeli tanks were positioned, where not to be sniped and how people were already stocking up on supplies. Shop owners still chased us down with business cards, imploring us to pay them a visit for Christian souvenirs. Would the invasion really come?