Letter from Bethlehem

My taxidriver says it is better to stay under curfew than to circle around like ants in a closed bottle. Bethlehem is not anymore the place people used to love. Perhaps most alarmingly, signs of poverty are increasing. The garbage has not been picked up for over a week now since municipal workers did not receive their salaries over several months. To get the stench out of the air people burn the garbage. However, opposite our house the garbage is still there and the stench unbearable. We keep the windows shut, also in order to prevent exhaust fumes of the trucks coming into the children’s bedroom. During the night, the streets are dark and desolate since the municipality has to save on electricity.

Mary is lucky to work at the only Palestinian university which did not reduce the salaries of its staff. However, teachers are leaving for all the known reasons; not in the last place because they can get better salaries elsewhere. Fortunately, Saoudi-Arabia made a considerable payment to all Palestinian universities to cover the debts of third and fourth year students. These weeks, I helped the editing of a report on the situation of Palestinian university students. It consists of some 40 interviews conducted with students across the West Bank and Gaza. Volunteers from a variety of organizations present in the area cooperated in the undertaking. What struck me most in reading the interviews was the sheer persistence of students. Many of them continued to travel to their place of study even though (in Gaza) they failed 80-90% to reach it in time or at all. Or they had to sleep at a checkpoint, or make complicated detours through the fields. In the Birzeit hills, the students’ persistence was only equalled by the stubbornness of donkeys following in their footsteps. One student remarked, in despair: ‘You can’t think when your life is not in your hands.’ A most common problem was that students studied several times for the same exam only to each time find out that it was cancelled due to curfews and incursions.

Even though closed up, we in Bethlehem have no army in the streets and thus at least a better possibility to raise our voice. Several NGOs, heads of churches and the governate make themselves up for an activity to demand the children’s right to education. Still so many kids have problems to travel from one village to another or from their village to Bethlehem town. (In other cities the school year is more forcefully disrupted by curfews).

During a preparatory meeting we discuss the latest political developments such as the pending annexation by Israel of Rachel’s Tomb, a holy place located inside Bethlehem. One participant expresses his concern about the possibility of ‘transfer.’ This seemingly neutral and technical word stands for nothing less than the deportation of the Palestinian population from the West Bank and Gaza; a perspective of ethnic cleansing as we know it from areas such as formerYugoslavia or Palestine in 1948 when some 700.000 people were forced to leave their homes and not allowed to return. Public opinion polls in Israel indicate that, depending on the formulation of the question, some 40-60% of the population there support the idea in principle or in practice. Military analysts in Israel consider transfer a distinct possibility under some well-defined circumstances such as a large scale Iraqi attack on Israeli targets, or in response to a Palestinian ‘mega-attack’ – a suicide bombing with a great number of casualties. Israeli papers speak about secret military plans to create several ‘Jenins’ in the West Bank which would induce large numbers of people to leave. A prolonged war in Iraq could give coverage.

The scenario is supposed to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, it would pacify the Palestinian Intifadah. On the other hand it would release Israel from the nagging demographic problem of loosing a Jewish majority in the area between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan in the not too distant future (about 2020). The transfer discussion is not so familiar abroad, likely because it puts Israel in a role which not many are willing to acknowledge as a possibility. However, the discussion is pursued vigorously in Israel’s own newspapers which have always been more liberal and candid than the mainstream Western.press on Israel. In an article this week (‘Demagography as an enemy of democracy’) , the Israeli writer Boaz Evron makes a plea to give up the idea that a Jewish majority should define the Israeli state. ‘The only viable solution is to turn Israel into what everyone, left and right, is most afraid of – an open democratic state for all its citizens, based on the assumption that a Hebrew culture is strong enough to include Christians, Moslems, Semites and Slavs. ’ (The last category refers to the many non-Jewish Russians who immigrated into Israel because they could prove to have a distant Jewish family member, or because their ancestry was not checked at all). Like most Israelis, Evron enters the debate on a pragmatic note: ‘If that alternative [transfer] is examined carefully – with a cool head, putting aside morality, and assuming it were possible – we will soon discover that it won’t make any difference. The angry ‘transferred’ will crowd along the borders and wage incessant war. Transfer will recruit the entire Arab world to unite all its resouces against us. The shock in the rest of the world will most likely drive the United States to drop its patronage. And then… remember Kosovo!’

The reasoning may be convincing, but what is difficult to digest is that such scenarios barely give another role to Palestinians than pawns in war. They enter the argument not as human beings with rights but only in so far as their anger and longing for revenge and return make the scenario impractical for Israel. I try to imagine the people around me – family, teachers, students - being driven out of town and subsequently ‘waging incessant war’ from along the border. Frankly, I don’t think many of them have the stomach to do so. But if the transfer scenario would become ‘viable,’ does that reduce with even one inch the right of people to stay in their homeland?

Mary says that people would not leave, whatever happens. They would know that they would be unable to return. I am not so sure; after all, war is war. It may be a good sign that the Palestinian leadership is presently under real pressure to reform. Leadership, largely absent during this Intifadah, may be more needed than ever. While I talk about this scenario with people around me, Mary hears that some of the neighbours give special credibility to arguments of a foreigner like me. They think that I may have special sources of information from, for instance, the Dutch embassy. Mary tells them that I just put things together from the papers and the Internet. I myself become only more worried after discovering that people believe my worries. ‘Don’t think about it,’ Mary tells me, and with a bright smile and a wink she puts on high volume her latest favorite, a very melodramatic Egyptian song with the refrain ‘daayman domou’, farah mamnou’a’ [it’s always suffering, pleasure is forbidden], a song which she knows I do not like.

Fortunately, pleasure is not forbidden for Jara. Last Sunday we, Dutch passport-bearers, went to the beach in Tel Aviv. Previously I thought that Jara should not see the intimidating Bethlehem checkpoint, but in the course of time the view of army has become so familiar that I have changed my mind. On the beach, Jara made contact with the children there who turned out to be Russian and didn’t speak the little English Jara knows. ‘Why don’t they understand Arabic?’ she asks me in Arabic. As a last resort, Jara practised what she had learned from the Israeli Teletubbies program: she counted to ten in Hebrew. The other children whispered behind their hands. Their father curiously enquired who I am. ‘Oh, Holland,’ he said after my response, as if everything was clear and reassuring now. Afterwards, the kids shouted and played with water and didn’t care anymore about verbal communication. On the way back, Jara’s passport was elaborately investigated at the Bethlehem checkpoint. ‘Are you even checking the passports of four-year old children?’ I asked the soldier, surprised. ‘Yes,’ he said gruffly. At home, Jara told Mary that she had played with Israeli children, ‘you know, those of the jeesh [army].’