On the evening of April 3, 2002, US Federal Embassy Security Agents rescued me from Bethlehem. The entire episode felt comical. And it pretty well summed up my impressions of the US’s involvement in the Israel/Palestine conflict.
About an hour before the US Embassy “armored” convoy was to arrive, one of the International Solidarity Members got anxious. Obnoxiously so. “OK! Everyone but those leaving should get out of this room!” he shrieked to the lobby of the Bethlehem Star Hotel, where sat just about every person in the building. The journalists, plugged into the wall sockets with their laptops ignored him. But the ISM members intending to stay throughout the siege of Bethlehem followed his instructions. He proceeded to tell us where to stand, Americans on this side, Brits over there. Then we waited, meandered, and returned to sitting.
My friend needed to return to Europe and I simply thought it best to use this chance to make it back to my apartment in Gaza. One thing bothered me though - two days before, a group of foreigners found in a hotel by Israel were arrested and deported. I could not afford that - especially with my possessions in the other occupied Palestinian Territory. Even if we didn’t face deportation, what of our film? Just before the CBS News crew departed by their own vehicle to Jerusalem, I asked their producer, Katie to hold on to all of my film. Without a press pass, there was no guarantee that I would be allowed to retain any of it - especially what I had caught from the area of carnage in the middle of town. According to the ISM fellow doing the liaison work with the US embassy, no guarantees could be given.
The convoy originally had supposedly set out the day before, but had been turned back by the Israelis, who claimed that Bethlehem wasn’t secure enough to risk it. Most of us felt that the Israelis simply didn’t want the US seeing any of the damage. Indeed, when the convoy was finally let through, darkness was descending and the route the vehicles took skirted the Manger Square area where all of the devastation could be seen. Earlier in the day everyone had ducked away from the windows as a patrol of Israeli soldiers scouted around the outside of the hotel. We were later told, but I’m not sure from what source, that they had been out patrolling for the convoy’s eventual arrival.
Finally at around 5:30pm, an Israeli APC and jeep broke the wait. At first there was some panic, as there had been anytime we saw Israelis outside. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Richard, the hotel manager was laughed at when he asked the Israelis in the jeep if they were ‘here for the Americans.’ Three more Israeli APCs showed up. One had mounted on top a peculiar metal arm. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was for, however later on I discovered that such devices are used to cut trenches in the roads to prevent Palestinian cars from moving when the Israelis seize a city. About five minutes later we all noted the tell tale sign of the arrival of the American convoy: SUVs began rounding the corner.
In telltale fashion the convoy was divided among Americans and Britons in their respective national symbols. The American vehicles were all Chevrolet SUVs, plated in bulletproofing, and the British drove Landrovers. Then emerged the Federal agents. Body armor and olive drab Kevlar Helmets adorned their outfits of white t-shirts and blue jeans. They stepped through the glass foyer sporting AR-15 carbines. ‘Americans! Line up over there!’ one bellowed. One with a clipboard stepped through our crowd and told us to show our passports. ‘One bag each - carry-on size only!’ He told my friend that her backpack was too large. She stood flabbergasted, especially as it had been allowed as carry-on at the airport just before. I told her to just go to the back of the line and see if he didn’t notice it again. He didn’t.
I managed to be second in line for passport verification and approval to head outside. The Federal Agents, really resembling soldiers for all that mattered, seemed nervous - or at least overly cautious. ‘Hurry up! Get in the trucks!’ I was told. Such hurriedness might have been warranted the day before, but surely not now. Only an hour before, we all casually stood around just in front of the hotel. Indeed, the only threat we ever perceived was from Israeli snipers - certainly not from any Palestinians. Besides, I wasn’t about to climb into one of the black Chevy SUVs until my friend made it out too.
Once she found where I was, we climbed in, situating myself in the back row of lush leather seats. Diplomatic evacuation in style. Then followed two ISM members, one a Jewish New York resident and the other, an American of Arabic descent from Philadelphia. All in all, the whole operation should have been quick. We only had to wait for everyone leaving to have their passports checked, and to climb into the vehicles of their respective nationality. But the overly cautious behavior of the American agents held us back. I told the others that this had become too surreal, like some Tom Clancy movie with Harrison Ford.
Initially I thought to make a point with our wait. While the driver, a hulking African-American also sporting a military helmet and one of the other agents sat waiting for information over their radios, I decided to loudly describe to the others what I had seen in Bethlehem’s inner parts. ‘I can’t believe the Israelis would shoot out every single water main! And the fact that they fired into every single window! Every window! The inhumanity of the Israelis is incredible!’ The New Yorker seemed to catch on and loudly replied about being tagged with a laser sight earlier. The agents didn’t seem to notice or care.
With all of the car engines and headlights in the area, some of the neighbor children across the road from the hotel took a peak outside. These were the same children who earlier violated curfew so they could bring us a Palestinian spiced flat bread loaf. ‘Roger! We have movement at 10 o’clock!’ blurted the officer riding shotgun in our SUV.
‘Its just some kids!’ the New Yorker called out to him as he jumped from the SUV, rifle at the ready. ‘They brought us food before… Sheesh.’ He trailed off realizing it was useless. The agent ran around the back of the SUV and assumed a position with his gun to his shoulder. Oh great. Ten minutes into a battle zone and already the Americans are getting ready to shoot civilians.
Thankfully, the children at the window quickly fled. I cannot really blame the agents for not knowing what they were getting into; but really, they should have had at least some rational thought. Could they not consider that a hotel full of unarmed Americans was across the street from that window for two days, had any ‘terrorist’ really wanted to harm us?
Still, the agent had to perform his duty and stick to his post, leaning against the back of another SUV with his gun out. As things began to settle again, it seemed as if we could finally go. A radio call came out up front. ‘Freestyle to Mountaineer. Brits say they are ready to go.’ I began to crack up at their code names for the vehicles. ‘We’ll point the vehicles in the way we came in.’ Then everything turned grimly ominous as another radio message came out: ‘We have shots fired at 12 o’clock.’
‘Copy,’ came a reply over the radio. ‘We are holding. We are holding… Where did the shots come from, 12 o’clock?’
‘We heard one shot and one shot only.’
Ohhh. A shot. Somewhere. Ohh. Clearly we were in for it now. The cacophony of heavy caliber gunfire, grenade rounds and tank shells we lived through for 48 hours were nothing. Now there was a shot fired. Somewhere.
This was the signal to wait. The lone rifle shot, which was so far off we couldn’t hear it in our armored SUV, served as notice for the US Federal Agents not to get us out of there quickly, but rather to wait longer. I resumed loudly mocking the Israeli army in the back of the SUV. The driver, perhaps frustrated with this, perhaps just bored, decided to turn on the radio at a loud volume. Instead of the Arabic music I had grown accustomed to, I now had to face having Whitney Houston blasted at me. I really didn’t mind being in a war zone, but being forced to listen to such crap, especially at that time, proved more difficult than anything else we endured during our brief siege. Was this the closing credit sequence to our Harrison Ford movie?
Unfortunately not. The Agents outside were finally gearing up to face the threat of the single distant rifle report from five minutes before. One emerged from another SUV with night-vision goggles on. He didn’t seem sure what to aim them at. Even the Israelis in the escort jeep must have been thinking the Americans were nuts by now. At least our complaints from the back seat got the Top-40 radio turned down. Then another radio call. Big trouble coming. An ambulance.
A Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance emerged from around the right-hand corner, behind our SUV. The UK and US trucks moved aside as the emergency vehicle turned onto the road in front of the hotel, heading for Pope Paul VI Street. It was quickly stopped by the Israeli patrol, of course. All of us figured that this, only the second ambulance in the area in over 48 hours, would be let through just because of the American presence. Still, it took a good 10 minutes for the Israelis to search what is basically just an empty cargo van.
The American from Philadelphia began to get nervous with all the delays. ‘Hey, If I want to change my mind, can I just take my bags an go back to the hotel?’ he asked the driver. He was asked why. ‘Well, for one thing, I had to leave a bag behind, and easily there is more room here. I had to leave most of my clothes behind.’ The New Yorker voiced support, getting equally antsy about the situation.
‘We got one wanting to get his clothes,’ the driver proclaimed over his mike.
Before the Philadelphian could explain that he wanted to stay instead, a voice on the radio asked if he really needed his bags. Then the SUV side door flew open. ‘Are you willing to get shot for your clothes?’ barked an agent to the Philadelphian. The young man was startled by this and whimpered that he wasn’t. The door slammed as the agent took off. I didn’t understand why the guy had said no, since obviously there was no danger outside. Perhaps he thought the agent was the one who might be doing the shooting. A minute later the door opened and three bags were hurled inside. ‘This is what I found. If its not yours, too bad. It is now.’
At this point the ISM member from New York began explaining that he was uneasy about the delay because it seemed as if the hold up was due to Israeli insistence on searching us. The fear spread to me as well and I urged my friend to concoct a story with me in case the Israelis tried to deport us. I needed a story about having to evacuate my belongings left in Gaza. In reality, we were all just letting the delay get to us, as it turned out that the extended hold up was really due to the Israelis searching the Red Crescent ambulance as it went both in and back out of the Manger Square area.
Finally the agents got the go ahead signal, and the convoy of armored SUVs started up. It drove down to Pope Paul VI Street and swung a right, away from the direction of Manger Square. There at Bab al-Kwaq before Beit Jala, it turned right, slowing for the courtesy of Isareli Merkava tanks stationed there. Then the escorted convoy headed out of Bethlehem until it was stopped at the station point for the invasion, located just where my friend and I had entered the West Bank five days before. Everyone became extremely nervous when the SUVs stopped for checking. I quietly tucked my video camera under my seat. While I had given all my film to CBS for safekeeping, I had kept my camera with its footage of the devastation in Bethlehem. Outside we saw scores of Israeli teenage soldiers milling about, laughing. They had no clue about the people crying and screaming only a mile away. One soldier was urinating against a fence.
The agent in our car stepped out and told us that it seemed the Israelis would want to check our passports. “Well, at least we should have them ready.” The dynamic felt as if it had changed - that the US agents weren’t just working as clients of the Israelis. He walked away and was replaced by a plump Israeli in a suit.
“Good evening,” he said, feigning cordiality. “We just have to check everyone, in case any of you are staying with us.” ‘Staying with us’?? What the hell did that mean? I began to think that I would face trouble for having Gaza Strip entry stamps in my passport. He then turned to the Arab-American from Philly. “Now you are an American citizen born in America, right?” Yes, he was. “Ok.” He left and returned with our passports. I was safe. My stay in Gaza either didn’t matter or went unnoticed. It was the Arab-American that was their concern. “We must apologize, Im sure you understand. We dont like to have to single out anyone for their race, but you know, we really cannot be too sure.” After that condescending remark, he left. The Embassy Agent returned.
“Don’t worry, I couldn’t make out what that guy was saying either,” he told us. I laughed - mostly out of the realization that the US Embassy was actually on our side here.
The Consulate official, Chris Dilworth, then showed up and asked us where we would all like to be dropped off at. Wow. Total freedom. Suppressing the urge to say “Gaza”, I went along with the others who opted to just go to East Jerusalem. The convoy was on its way again.
As we passed through more cordons of Israeli armor and supply vehilces, the scene instantly changed. From one moment, we were in a virtual military camp, then the next we were at a busy stop light intersection adorned with ads for hair products. It didn’t feel right - and in many ways I felt as if I had just abandoned the people of Bethlehem to their fates.
When we arrived in East Jerusalem and disembarked, the US Embassy Agents changed their demeanor completely. They started laughing, joking and shaking hands. Two of them were telling their sort of “war story” about their reaction to the single gunshot they had heard. Chris Dilworth approached again, this time offering the name and phone number of people at the US Consulate in Jerusalem where he invited us to go to to give affidavits on our experiences with the Israelis. The rest of the night seemed unreal in Jerusalem. This was the city Dan Rather said was “at war,” yet it knew nothing of what was happening in the Territories. Most Israelis never have.
I went to the US consulate the following day after my friend left for Europe, a day late. I was told that the US planned on filing an official protest concerning the treatment of its citizens by the Israeli army. While I was happy to hear this, I was later told by others that diplomatic lowlies like that, although much better informed about the local situation, are usually ignored by the State Department. Either which way, my government now knew fully where I was and what I was involved in, something that gave me some pause, but not too much. I grabbed a taxi for the expensive ride to the Erez Crossing to re-enter the gigantic concentration camp that is the Gaza Strip.
The moment I stepped from the taxi, I was met with the sound of an explosion. ‘Ah, Gaza,’ I smirked at the driver. Indeed, as I stepped to the first entry gate the Israelis told me that I would have to wait because of fighting. Two young Japanese filmmakers sat outside waiting as well. Once we finally gained admittance, about twenty minutes later, they offered me a ride in their prearranged taxi - saving me $10. Their driver asked where to take me.
‘Bayti fi Shuhada Sharia (My house is in Shuhada Street),’ I explained in my broken and minimal Arabic. Did this taxi driver know where that street was? It’s not too major of one in Gaza City. Oh yes, I had forgotten: no one here has been allowed to go anywhere else for years - of course he knows every street of Gaza. Home at last.