Letter from Bethlehem

I lazily stroll with Jara along the university street. On the other side are people who exchange smiles and whispers. There are no cars at all, calm reigns, birds are whistling. The sun breaks through the clouds. Jara sees a crocodile in one of them. A neigbour shows her her little puppy. I never spoke with so many neighbours as during these days. Some people in the surrounding gardens are in shorts and do manual work. The scene reminds of the relaxation in a traditional Palestinian village on Friday afternoons, the day off, when people have nothing on their minds.

Yet it is curfew again. More than during the long siege of Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity in March and April, children seem to go out on the streets, at least in our part of the town. Not too far, of course. As soon as the sound of an approaching tank or APC is heard, they withdraw in the gardens. Then, after a while when the tanks leave, you hear their voices once again. Some of them scare off adults by making a perfect, creaky imitation of the military jeep’s sirenes and the mamnu’a el-tajawoul [forbidden to go out] of the loudspeakers. Parents perhaps think that the soldiers will not arrest their young kids. Or they simply can’t control them. When Brahim, a neighbor, teases Jara telling her that she should not go out, she points her finger far away: ‘Shu ya’ani [What is the matter], the mamnu’a el-tajawoul is not for here but for there.’ Sometimes we hear a little variation in the otherwise monotonously and thoughtlessly shouted mamnu’a phrase. Jeeps in Beit Jala lately reversed the words and stayed repeating ‘mamnu’a el-tajawoul, el-tajawoul mamnu’a.’ They further mocked the people by asking ‘Where are the millions?’ – a reference to a verse of ‘Ween al ‘Arabi?’ [where are the Arabs?], a song which Jara in fact likes to sing.


I divide my time between our house near ‘Azza camp and that of my family in law. Early in the morning, when there are no tanks, I take a walk of 200 meters along the road to go to the house in ‘Azza for work. The first look on the computer is usually not happy. Several emails come from unknown senders who have detected my subscription to Palestinian mailings and inform me that I love ‘Hitler’ or ‘bloodbaths’ and similar things. Once in a while I look over my shoulder into the window to see whether the tank nearby does not direct its barrel to our house. Somehow the tank resembles a dangerous animal quietly waiting for its prey. A crocodile. It moves up and down the road, makes brief growling sounds, then silence again.

Yesterday night there was heavy shooting nearby, the neighbours found a lot of bullets in the gardens. Lately, Brahim gave a stern warning to Jara after she proudly showed him an M 16 bullet she found. Some of such bullets can in fact explode. With the help of the mosque’s loudspeaker, a local imam used to warn the ‘Azza kids not to pick up bullets from the streets.

At the end of the working day, when there are still tanks around, I take a route through the gardens which neighbours have pointed out to me; over a roof, with only one jump, along a narrow steep path, and then just 20 meter walking along the main street. Fortunately, there are this time no sharpshooters on the roofs in our part. The garden walk has now become a routine. I tell myself that the risk is not great, and why not moving a little after sitting the whole day closed up? To compensate for the lack of outdoor activities, many people here, too, watch the soccer championships. (Mary does not watch but supports all the non-American and non-European teams).

Curfew means a delay of everything: delays of weddings (it is now the season of the weddings), traveling (Fuad cannot leave for a conference in Belgium), work and studies. The duration of the delay is completely unknown. Any planning is impossible. The last weeks, the tawjihi students studied day and night for their matriculation exams which are scheduled now, and they do not know what is going to happen. I discuss with one of them, a neighbor who studies at the Freres, a subject which is in the front of my mind: organizing non-violent activities during curfews. Why not making a lot of noise during a particular moment of the day, or to raise the people’s voice in some other creative way? He is skeptical, and presents familiar arguments: all politics between Israel and the Palestinians are based on conspiracies, the Palestinian factions dominate internal politics and do not allow common people to do anything. And whatever you do, it does not make any difference. We agree to meet and talk further after the tawjihi.


Today, suddenly an announcement that we can do shopping. There is a great deal of confusion. The PNA seems to speak with different voices: First the tawjihi [matriculation] exam is on, then off, then on, but is there enough time? It is possible that the Israelis announced the lifting of the curfew without informing the Palestinian liaison office. In such case, the PNA tells the population that they go out on their own risk. The result is that nobody knows what is happening.

The atmosphere is strange. After the long curfew during the Nativity siege, we have had so many incursions – in one case a night long, in another case a few days, or the incursions were restricted to a particular area of the town – that you almost find a certain disinterest and neglicence gaining hold of people. Mary says that the day before the latest curfew, when everybody was talking that a curfew would be imposed, only few people started stockpiling supplies. People don’t care too much anymore. It also looks as if more people are now tresspassing the curfew on an individual base. How dangerous that is, is clear from what happened in occupied Jenin where yesterday a tank suddenly started to shell a market crowd, with deadly consequences.


Mary called a Jewish acquaintance in Gilo. I asked her whether she called because of the suicide bombing there that morning. No, it was her friend’s birthday, a very depressing birthday.

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Jara and I play in the neighbour’s garden. Before the latest curfew, she invented her own act of resistance by telling Mary that she would not buy Israeli chocolate from the auntie in the shop at school. Now her fantasies go in other directions. She proposes to be my mother, the queen, and I am the prince in search of a princess. She gives me a tree branch which is a knife and instructs me first to kill the witch in the evil castle. After having done that, I should capture the bride’s trousseau from the castle and give that to the princess, thus earning the permission to marry. She stays on a safe distance while I fight the witch. Afterwards we organize a great wedding ball. ‘Are the Israelis allowed to join?’ ‘No, they would kill the princess.’ ‘Not even a few of them?’ ‘OK, a few,’ she says, I think to guarantee my continuing participation in the play. She takes the mike, and snakedances the Arabic songs she watches on ‘Dream TV’, a kind of Arabic MTV station. After that she is the priest who blesses the couple.