Letter from Bethlehem (April 15-22, 2002)

Over three weeks of curfew makes life somehow timeless. The muezzin and church bells are silent, except for the ‘opening hours’ when we are allowed to leave home.

My neighbour and I grow a beard; we compete which will be the longest at the end of the Bethlehem occupation. When summer time was introduced in the West Bank last week, Mary and her family decided that it all does not make much of a difference, with no work and school, and that we could as well keep the old time. As if we wish to stay out of time. In fact, Mary and I sometimes forget the day of the week.

While the opening hours are the major events marking time, they are ambiguous, sometimes dreadful, sometimes pleasant. You have to do a lot in that brief period, including shopping (long queues especially for the valuable tomatoes, so you have to go out immediately when the hour strikes); going to the doctor for Tamer’s vaccination, and – the nice side - meeting visitors and family who for the first time see Tamer and want to say mabrouk [congratulations].

Strangely enough, going out is not pleasant at all, with the unbearable stench at the piles of garbage every street corner, the sand on the streets (which makes you consider taking a bath afterwards), watching the lanterns and electricity poles knocked down, and of course the tanks which shamelessly fire in the air just for intimidation.


On Sunday, a new development. Mary tells me lightly: ‘They are going from house to house.’ I ask: ‘Who, the people of the food convoy or of the march?’ Both a food convoy and religious marchers attempted to enter Bethlehem that day. Mary: ‘No, the soldiers.’

A neighbour opposite calls to say that the soldiers went twice in her house, the second time during the evening, and that her family was requested to stay outside while the soldiers were searching. Afterwards they left utensils to break the door of their neighbour upstairs.

Mary looks outside and sees some twenty soldiers entering houses. Some go inside, others guard the environment. The people peep through their windows. Jara joins window watching and observes a soldier relieving himself near a gate that leads to our house. ‘He should not do pee-pee on the ground, that is dirty.’ She starts to chant her verse: Batteech, shamaam, Sharon zaghlek fil hammaam [watermelon, yellow melon, Sharon slips in the toilet]. She asks me to march behind her, we are the Israeli army. She takes a plastic knife in her hand which is the gun, and starts shouting shalom aleichem.

After a while we watch through the door window how our own house, some two hundred meters downhill, is surrounded by soldiers. I tell Mary, who is worried. I try to calm her. ‘At least we took out all the valuables.’ She says, ‘It is not the valuables, it is the idea.’ The soldiers come and go, we cannot see whether they enter; our door is just beyond view. Later on we hear from neighbours that windows are broken but that they have not entered. So we have luck.

The neighbour next door did not. He is the head of a ministerial committee of the PNA for Moslem-Christian relations. There was some intensive shooting at his house; apparently the soldiers had forced their way. Would they think that our house is linked to the PNA?

Jara asks whether the soldiers shoot at birds. While playing in the garden these days she has begun to love birds. Neighbours are calling each other, the lines are busy. ‘Have they entered?’ ‘Lissa [not yet]’ One neighbour is praying continuously. I tell Jara that she should not be afraid.

‘Papa is a foreigner and they will not harm foreigners and their family.’ I tell her that the soldiers may come in but that we can bring the word out, to journalists, to others. We can always do something, is my message to her, she does not need to really feel vulnerable. What can you say?

Then the soldiers come in front of the house. Jara panicks and hides under a pillow. Mary opens the door. There are five. They want to see the men’s IDs. Mary says that there are two men in the house: me, a Dutchman, and a baby of three weeks old. Childishly, I take pleasure in standing on the doorstep so as to tower over the soldiers. I show the passport.

The five men look shy. Only the commander takes a good look in the cupboards, under the mattrasses and the beds. ‘You think there are people there?’ asks Mary. ‘We search for weapons.’ First Mary wants to prevent them to enter the baby room, but I allow the commander on condition that he remains silent. Fortunately, he is polite.

Jara is calmer now. After the soldiers leave, she wants to play outside. She’d better release her tension, I decide. So we play in the garden amidst a group of soldiers who first allow us to play but after a while send us back. We go in and after a while out again, to play with the neighbour’s dog, also under the eyes of soldiers who now go into a neighbouring house. I want to stay outside to let them feel the presence of a foreigner, whatever difference that may make. At one point the soldiers say in English ‘behave yourself’ to the barking dog. Indeed.

They ask if we have the neighbour’s key. Mary knows that the neighbours are upstairs, maybe they hide themselves. She asks the soldiers whether they want to search the nearby house of a good friend of hers. She has the keys. I join a soldier to point out the location but they say that they will not enter. Who knows, says Mary. Some of the soldiers sit on the ground, bored. Mary starts an argument, angry because our house is damaged.

The soldiers: ‘We look for Hamas.’ ‘Who made Hamas?’ says Mary. ‘Sharon is a bigger terrorist than Hamas.’ A soldier: ‘We gave you 96%’ ‘We want 100%,’ says Mary furiously. ‘What about Arafat’s corruption?’ ‘That’s our problem. Why are you breaking the glass of our home?’ The commander first denies that anything is broken, then admits with a shrug of the shoulders. On Mary’s question what he thinks about Jenin, he doesn’t answer. ‘He couldn’t say anything.’ My own conversing with the soldiers is not argumentative, but I refuse to greet or say niceties when they start praising Jara’s looks.

Jara tells the neighbour’s son about what happened: ‘Papa opened the cupboards, they looked, and Khalas [that was it].’ The neighbour is worried since the soldiers took their IDs and Latin American passports. More phone calls. Somebody in the neighbourhood tells that the soldiers took away his binoculars. A friend of Mary calls to say that she is worried that they will take away her son. Meanwhile, a few houses further down, the soldiers appropriate the house of an absent lawyer for sleeping and eating purposes, and whatever else they do.


Next day, we visit our house during opening hours. The locker and door are badly damaged, we see traces of soldier’s boots on it. We can’t enter through the main door. They had apparently tried to enter with some primitive equipment. Through an opening in one window a curtain was pulled so that it came down. Several window glasses are broken.

We manage to enter through a side door, take out the broken glass and put some covers in the openings. Then we enter our neighbour’s, Emile Jarjoueh’s house, which is in a complete mess: broken computers, printers, files on the ground, a large photo of Arafat which is of course shot into pieces, even an image of the Last Supper is destroyed with zeal. Outside two cars are shot through. We take pictures. I understand it was the same group who had entered the house where we stay. Mary and I discuss how soldiers who look polite can so unleash themselves when foreigners do not watch. A double face.