Lately I met Ibrahim ‘Issa, the principal of the Hope Flowers School to the south of Bethlehem. We had a relaxed talk together with friends from abroad. For years the school has been known for its peace programs conducted with Israeli partners. Ibrahim is quiet and self-assured, a man well-versed in non-violent and human rights strategies. During this Intifadah, the access to the school was for several years almost made impossible by a mound put up by the Israeli army on the road that connects the school with the Bethlehem-Hebron highway. The school is very close to an Israeli army post protecting a settlement - Ibrahim pointed out the nearby hill behind which a tank was hidden – and access to the school was considered as giving militants an opportunity to shoot from the school, although that in fact never happened. After a visit of an American delegation and the intervention of a Haaretz journalist, the mound was removed. But meanwhile many students had left the school, and up to this point the school is struggling to reach the number of students it used to have before the construction of the mound.
That was not his only problem. Two years ago, it happened that without Ibrahim’s knowledge a militant had made use of the house which he owned and in which he lived. The army announced its intention to demolish the house. Because of Ibrahim’s high-profile contacts abroad, his family and friends managed at the very last moment – while the bulldozers were already working to destroy the wall around the garden - to prevent the disaster happening. Meanwhile, he himself was held in custody and interrogated.
At this point in the conversation ‘Issa adopted a thinking, reflective look. He wanted to relay something that in the context of all his problems almost looked like a detail, but that apparently unsettled him very much. “After I was released from prison, the soldiers led me out and told me to go home. Now you know that Kfar Etzion [the place of the civil administration where the prison is located] is built on a hill. At the time it was winter, it was early in the morning and foggy and the fog is thicker when you are higher. So I couldn’t see well and didn’t know where to go. I asked a soldier. He told me to go to the right. I did so but did not know where I was. After a while I approached a watch tower from where I suddenly saw myself being held under fire. I was apparently still within the military encampment. I think that if I would have not seen the tower or would not have stopped they had shot at me. For sure they thought I was spying or trying to infiltrate. They then took me and put me back in prison. After several hours, the soldier who had released me apparently heard about me and I was released again. Now I can’t understand this. Why do they do this? According to the Geneva Conventions, if you are released from prison the army should bring you home.”
As if to underscore his point, Ibrahim drove me home after our talk. It is my experience here that any host insists to bring you home if you don’t have a car yourself. More than once it happened that people absolutely wanted to drive me home while I myself preferred to take a walk.
In Palestine, one’s home can look ghostly, like a shadow that barely exists, that lacks visibility. Mary’s cousin Haifa lately came back home for a visit after several years in the United States. Upon entering Bethlehem in the evening, she had to take the familiar detour wide around Rachel’s Tomb, which has become a large military compound with security zones around. “What is this? I didn’t recognize the streets. So desolate. Where was I?”
A Palestinian home or home town is often a prison and is also often divided in parts closed off to each other. Lately Mary’s uncle Jamal, secretary of the municipality, had a meeting with the Israeli army about a permit to reach Bethlehemite lands that are currently beyond reach because of the construction of the separation wall. It concerns some 10.000 dunam [1000 hectare]. The owners wanted to collect the olive harvest, as they still could do normally and without permit last year. Jamal, with his characteristic dry humour: “We had a meeting between the three Jamals. Me, my colleague at the Irhtibaat [Palestinian-Israeli Liaison], and also the Israeli, a Druze, who was formerly a high-placed commander of the Israeli army in South Lebanon. I said that we from our side did not want to discuss politics. That is for the PNA. I simply asked for our rights to go to land that has always been ours. But the Israeli Jamal was not forthcoming. He said that our land is part of the so-called seam zone around the barrier. That zone is now out of reach.” Collecting the olives – it’s the season now - is traditionally both a job to be done and a celebration. It used to be done with a respect for customs, and with the help of neighbours and friends. At the end people would come together and share food. For Palestinians, the olive groves are an integral part of their concept of home, a home that stretches out over the hills, with beautiful and expanding vistas. But those vistas are shrinking or blocked now.
Mary talks with teachers and students at Bethlehem University about the wall. A teacher tells her that when the wall will be built, “people will not go away; no, they will run away.” Mary confesses that it is for the first time that she watches students and is thinking, “What are you doing here?” “But then I realize that, after all, this is their home.” But for her, too, home has become a problematic concept. A long time ago, when we were still engaged, I remember her telling a non-comprehending colleague of mine – who was rather suspicious of patriotic-sounding concepts like “home” and “roots” - that “Bethlehem is the most beautiful place on earth.” That was indeed long ago. “I don’t recognize Bethlehem anymore,” is a sentence now frozen in the mouth of inhabitants here. And it is true, Bethlehem is a town without public life, like most towns in Palestine. With Christmas approaching, we only see more watchtowers built at the main Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint. The last addition is an X-ray frame on a high standard through which the few passers by who are still in the possession of a permit must walk, one by one, with a considerable distance between each, prompted by the snapping gesture or a hand’s wave of a soldier. The more security devices, the more people are treated like robots.
The Palestinian home also lacks something else typical of a normal home: basic safety. Lately Mary had a terrible dream. She dreamt about herself running in the oldest street of Bethlehem with Tamer on her arm away from an aircraft threatening to bomb her and the town. Like in a cover drawing of a war novel. In another scary moment, she heard last week at four o’clock in the morning soldiers speaking Hebrew on the street. This time it was not a dream. It seems that the Israeli army routinely enter the town to arrest people, we know of at least three occasions during the last month. Yet Mary keeps hope somehow. Recently she conversed with a Palestinian medical doctor from Gaza who said that despite everything she would never leave Palestine voluntarily. “Where do you still find people greeting each other on the street, showing real interest for each other, from one human being to another?” The owner of the restaurant where they took coffee, reacted that “when you are not in a prison, it is nice here.” He himself had lately tried to establish a restaurant in the US, in vain. As for herself, Mary wanted a year ago or so to leave the country, she had given up hope during all the curfews at the time, but now she wants to stay, I think more on intuitive than rational grounds.
The great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who recently passed away, was fond of quoting a twelfth-century monk from Saxony, Hugo of St Victor: “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place.” Said wrote this to encourage exiles not to sit on the sidelines nursing a wound but to scrutinize the world with new eyes. As for me, not an exile, and not much perfect either, I feel attached to our home in Bethlehem. If I think more concretely, I love in particular the spots besides our own house and Mary’s family house: the garden, the balcony or the courtyard. On those places I have memories of Mary, whose voice there gains in timbre and depth while laughingly conversing with friends and visitors or while taking a cup of Arabic coffee or mint tea and enjoying the climate. Or of images of people who reflect silently while taking in a distant view, like our neighbour does. Or the image of having a party outside on the occasion of the first haircut of a little cousin (who was put on a chair on the table, with the cheering audience around), as occurred a few weeks ago. Yes, the perfect Biblical peace under the shadow of the fig tree.
I decide not to annoy myself about Pat Robertson, the fundamentalist Christian preacher who as always is likely to join the presidential race in the US, and who said recently something like this: “To the best of my knowledge, there are no Palestinian Christians living in Bethlehem.” Despite the shrinking space, we exist. In fact, these days, I strongly feel the need for some kind of acknowledgement that Bethlehem still exists. To take one small case: around Bethlehem is no entrance road with a plate indicating that you enter the town. In the West, any hamlet prides hugh name plates on entrance roads but the town known anywhere in the world has none. I would not even mind to have the name plate placed next to the checkpoint, even though the main checkpoint is not a particularly reliable marker of municipal territory, at least not according to international law. A barbed name plate would simply point to our reality: Bethlehem is a prison.
Jara too wants more markings. Lately little kids had removed the number plate from tete’s [grandma’s] house. Now she wants a new number, “let’s put it on carton.” She can draw numbers well, and she is good in painting. Lately her school taught her how to draw the Palestinian flag but I see how she especially loves to draw a beautiful house set in nature, with trees and flowers – who knows, flowers of hope? Together with Tamer I make my daily morning journey in the shadows of our house, in fact especially around the neighbour’s house because there Tamer meets his friend, the cat, and because there he can climb on many small stone stairs, and explore the ground for the dude [ants]. He gives loud shrieks so that he can hear his echo across the hills. He too exists! With each step on the stairs I count for him; one, two, three. Counting is somehow reassuring. While looking at Tamer, it suddenly occurs to me that I also count the days of this occupation, when will it end?
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.