‘As though we are slowly dying’

The main event in the small world in which we live is the announcement of the temporary lifting of the curfew. On Friday afternoon Mary makes a list of things to buy and we divide the work since we can go out only a few hours and neighbours may pass by for a visit. After two weeks of curfew there is no milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, and tahineh (sesame seed paste, which is needed to make dibis, a grape syrup spread for toast and bread). Janet and I conduct quick conversations on the street: “How are you? [bitjannen - terrific] Do you have water, telephone, electricity? No house searches?” And away people go, rushing to finish their errands. At Kattan shop on Manger Road, the shopkeeper has run out of regular bags and packs my buyings in eight small Gauloises plastic bags. Fortunately pharmacies still sell pampers and baby milk-powder. The Hazboun supermarket in Madbasseh street is so crowded that my four year old daughter Jara panics. Some twenty people have to remain outside.

Near the Lutheran church in downtown Bethlehem soldiers stop people. From here on, some 1.5 km from the Church of Nativity, thousands of people are unable to leave their houses in Madbasseh, Fawagreh, Wadi Ma’aleh streets and at the eastern side of the Church. Elias, who is a member in the board of the Arab Orthodox Society, a charity, says that he is continuously approached by people in the downtown area who lack food and especially medicine. A friend of my family who is social worker says that she now is called by people who lack cash. One can’t access banks and many don’t have savings at home. Electricity is not working in many areas; people try to make improvised connections with neighbours if they can. The families I know do still have water but many others must be without water supply because water tanks on roofs have been shot or because they live in closed areas such as Fawagreh or the refugee camps. We hear that some people in the inner city area, desperate to feed their kids, are cooking a kind of grass taken from their gardens.

Elias tells us that his sister in law and her husband live in the closed downtown area. At one point, the husband tried to leave his house. His wife is pregnant and urgently needs medicine. When he entered the street, he was immediately forced to stay with his back against the wall. This lasted an hour, then he had to return home again, without the medicine.

A group of courageous internationals in town regularly and at considerable risk to themselves organizes food convoys to those in need in the inner city. Yesterday, they managed to come as close as Manger Square and were able to distribute food and medicines, for which the inhabitants are profoundly grateful. At present there more and more international and Israeli peace movement convoys bringing essentials into the besieged towns, including Jenin. My own group of the United Civilians for Peace yesterday accompanied a convoy of the International Church Committee into Ramallah and more convoys are coming. It is the least that can be done.

Elias himself, who lives in an area where fortunately the neighbours have access to each other and can provide help, says that he was left with barely half an hour to do shopping. In front of his house, some twenty youths, some of whom he knew, sat on the pavement for hours, guarded by soldiers. During the lifting of the curfew, they were picked up from the street and their IDs confiscated. One of the youths was handcuffed, blind-folded and taken away, the others were allowed to go. Elias’ family was too frightened to leave their house.

It is very dangerous to walk on the streets during curfew. One man from Bethlehem, in desperate need of food, took the risk last Tuesday to go to Beit Jala during the lifting of the curfew there. He was shot dead at the Baab al-Zqaaq junction some two hundred meters from our house. Friday a man in Beit Sahour was killed in a rain of bullets when he simply wanted to open his shop for the soldiers, who would otherwise blow up his door. I hear of people who for long periods remained under their beds during gun, helicopter or tank fire. “They shoot at every dubbaaneh! [fly],” says Janet.

People are becoming increasingly tired, depressed and nervous. It is not just the paralysis one feels at not being able to move but also the relentless attack - in the name of defense - on Palestinian society as a whole. The news renders one simply powerless. We were astonished to hear that Mary’s uncle’s lands are now flattened and serving as an access road to Har Homa, the Jerusalem settlement to the north of Bethlehem. As if the present occupation is not enough! It is the accumulation of distressing news, anxiety about loved ones, concern about properties, and the constant shooting outside that play on all of our nerves.

It is also difficult to hear people crying on the phone. Mary received a call from Dubai where a Palestinian family is terribly worried about a sister who is in a village close to Birzeit University, where on Friday house to house searches were conducted in student facilities. Of course such anxious phone calls go on all the time.

In a way, many feel as if they are somehow dying. Yesterday I typed a diary from a matriculation student at a Bethlehem school [Please see below]. Her recurring metaphors are about dying and burial - Bethlehem as a dead place where people are buried alive in their houses. Many feel terribly hurt by the siege of the Church of Nativity, a source of pride but now a symbol of the total vulnerability of this society.

Whether it is one’s house, services, amenities, land, or religious symbols - everything is threatened to be taken away. A neighbour, who stays in Jerusalem because of her work, says she refuses at the moment to change her clothes or buy new ones, as if she is in mourning.

The one space which, at least for us, has not yet been occupied is our home. It is kept very clean. We eat the Easter cookies — originally baked for guests and visitors — all by ourselves. Of course, the children greatly determine the rhythm of our life: the regular giving of milk, the bath, the food which Jara no longer wishes to eat. The children keep us busy. In the evenings I don’t even try to watch films any more. Any escape will simply turn into a cold shower when reality seeps back in.

For our newborn baby Tamer, I sing old songs of Mama Cass, “There Is a New World Coming,” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” When the tanks and APCs rattle by, I raise my voice. Tamer sleeps on, peacefully, then hesitatingly opens his eyes to look into the sun.