While I do correspondence for a petition on Palestinian education, a friendly mail comes in asking whether the petition text should also not quote the reasons why the Israeli army is imposing curfews. Are Palestinian schools not places where violent demonstrations take place? But in fact we here in Bethlehem don’t know much about the reasons for the curfews and closures except for the general referral to “security.” There are very few schools in Palestine where under the present circumstances the administration allows students to be involved in any kind of political work like a demonstration. One teacher I know complains that she would not even be permitted to put her signature under a petition. All efforts are aimed at getting the school year finished without disturbance.
I don’t mention this issue of not knowing the reasons for the curfews to score a political point but rather because it adds to the overall uncertainty and arbitrary regime under which people are living. One army colonel in Hebron (a city presently much worse off than Bethlehem) said on Israeli TV that “We intend to put strong pressure on the population to make it expel the terrorists from its midst.” According to international law such a policy is forbidden. At the same time, one has the impression that the curfews are somehow political exchange money for getting security concessions from the Palestinians. We hear that a new “Bethlehem-Gaza” plan is in the offering, meaning that the army in the future would withdraw from these areas. The plan is apparently designed to win PR points while at the same time putting pressure upon the Palestinian Authority to rein in militants.
We had this week two curfewed days, Friday and Saturday, while sometimes the nights are open and sometimes not. In the morning, people get used to carefully listen at 5:00 whether today there’ll be a curfew or not. People sometimes even recognize the creaky loudspeaker voice: “Oh, that is the Druze, you can’t hear well what he says.” Usually those soldiers who start mocking are younger: “The Khalifeh Sharon orders you to stay at home.” “You are forbidden to put on the lights.” In one case two weeks ago, the announcing soldier started to sing the mamnu’a tajaawel as if it was the early morning call for prayer. It is now very common to have confusion about whether there is curfew or not, which is of course disastrous for the planning of the day. At one private school, the principal decided to go on with the school day even though things were not quite clear. After one lesson hour, it turned out to be curfew. Parents became angry, started even shouting at the principal because they had to pick up their kids by car with all the risks that would entail, like the confiscation of car keys. “Why did the school not organize a school bus to bring the kids back home?” they asked. But of course the responsables at the bus company were themselves afraid that the bus would be stopped and that children and driver would be in danger. People are even afraid that soldiers are handing out tickets for those without proper driving papers. This also happens according to the latest rumours.
Mary, not knowing on Friday whether to go to work or not, called the university (fortunately, she could reach it; of course the lines are all the times busy at such moments), and is told: “The irtibaat [Palestinian liaison office] tells that it is for 95% certain that there will be curfew today.” People have to act upon such pieces of information. In the afternoon, the army may announce the opening of the town but then it is of course too late to schedule lessons, exams or work meetings. Students and workers who have to come from outside town don’t know whether to travel to their destination or not. Conflicting rumours and even local TV stations providing differing statements about “official” closing hours compound the feeling that personal and community life is somehow intended to become a mess. Today I went to the grocery without any real need for buying something but just to get that comfortable feeling that you do something out on the street which is predictable, routine, not dependent upon any ulterior decision. The army wants to let you feel that even breathing the air outside is dependent upon their goodwill. Frankly, while there are indeed moments that security is at stake two weeks ago a donkey was found south of Bethlehem with a bomb belt on the back the curfews and closures are by and large a message expressing who is the boss. In turn, many people here are fantasizing how the Israelis will once get it back from whatever source. The classical dynamics of occupation. What is surprising is that despite all the media attention to the political situation, basic facts are not known to insiders. European consuls, stationed in East-Jerusalem, their offices in daily contact with Palestinians from the West Bank applying for visa, could not believe that Palestinian schools did not function because of the curfews. Some assumed that the curfews were imposed only outside school hours. Many people in Eastern-Jerusalem are also not informed. In fact, here in Bethlehem we barely know about curfew conditions in other West Bank cities.
Mary pities the vendors on the street, many of whom in the past had a job but are now obliged to sell things to a public without money. We hear that members of Bethlehem families who live abroad are giving money to parents who have to pay the school fees for their kids at private schools. Poverty is everywhere. Last week, my shoes which I left on the veranda were stolen. Our neighbour has erected a large fence at the entry after his car was stolen during nightly curfew hours. People are calling whether I can provide them with work.
Lately, I had a conversation with a soldier at the main Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint who thought that the Christians in Bethlehem “kept quiet” because they still have properties, have still something to loose. I am not so sure anymore; most of the middle class Christian families are running out of money. Many who don’t have affluent family members abroad approach priests in the community for charity but they usually cannot help them either. Leaving the country is not easy at all, especially when you don’t have resources or family member abroad. We hear about a few examples of Christians who receive asylum in a European country after telling authorities that they “are persecuted by Moslems.” Obviously untrue, but it is a story which successfully feeds upon anti-Moslem sentiments in the West, and which will not be denied by Israeli authorities.
The coming war in Iraq adds to the somber mood. The curfew will likely be strict throughout the duration of the war, and possibly extended to Arab areas in Jerusalem. The security staff at the Dutch representative office in Ramallah calls to invite me for a security briefing in Beit Jala this week in which the official Dutch attitude is explained. On local TV we watch a sheikh who asserts that America will be paid back for what it is doing. While he is talking a subtitle stresses that “the Koran predicts that America will fall.” Otherwise people are not caring too much, they say that they have already enough worries, so no need to think about the worries to come. Mary’s colleagues at the university are not nervous either, and they are not planning to buy things in advance. Mary herself takes care to at least buy enough powder milk and water for Tamer.
Meanwhile I get accustomed to laconic, bitter jokes. “Good morning, happy curfew.” “See you at the sea shore,” says Mary while waving goodby. “Will we get rain or curfew today?” Our neighbour says that she can’t see any movies about injustice. Everywhere people are addicted to light music programs of Dream TV or traveling scenes from Liberty TV, but equally addicted to the programs of Al-Jazeera or local TV about the latest Iraq news. Suzy at St Joseph says that she is personally completely desperate, sees no light at the horizon with all that talk about the war and a possible transfer or ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. However, as soon as she is in front of the class and sees the girls, it is different; she is teacher and she knows that she is one of the very few sources of hope for them and so she radiates hope as much as she can.
Jara is eager to go to a neighbour’s wedding, perhaps the major outing today for children. There they can dance and see some beauty in real life. She lately had a nightmare in which she, tete (grandma) and Janet were running in the fields chased by soldiers. She says that she is afraid for military jeeps and dogs, not for tanks. I see her sometimes thinking: So who are the people, animals, objects, spaces, for which I have to be afraid, and for which I don’t? She wants to live in Palestine because of the weather but would like to go for a journey to Holland to have “a rest from the soldiers.” “Sharon is rude because he does not want us to learn,” she says dutifully because she knows how to toe the official line but, like many other children, until recently she could barely hide her pleasure to have more free days coming. How to get the children back in their school rhythm is the question parents and teachers ask. Lately a teacher heard a student complaining that the army should better “erase the schools.” Eradication of education. Students talking tough among each other but at the same time feeling powerless.
Despite everything, Jara keeps drawing her most beautiful drawings in which black clouds and a shiny sun peacefully co-exist in the sky. Tamer shouts and moves when put in the carriage; he wants to get out, rain or shine, like all of us. “Close your eyes and dream with me,” says Mary. We are still going fine as the children keep us busy and somehow uplifted.
Toine van Teeffelen is a Dutch national, married to a Palestinian, and is a local coordinator of the United Civilians for Peace, a Dutch initiative to send civilian monitors to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.