An unusual siren

It is inevitable that children want to go out after being closed up in the house for a whole week, especially with the beautiful spring weather. The birds whistle their inviting songs. Some gardens are explored, hesitatingly. My four year old daughter, Jara, has made contact with the neighbours’ children and wants to play with them. I help her to climb the rocks into the neighbour’s courtyard. The normal entrance from the side street is out of bounds. Nobody dares to tread the streets during the curfew - except for a single journalist who managed today to enter our area in Bethlehem, walking on the streets with hands in the sky, a white flag in one hand.

Some of Jara’s plays reflect the political situation. Yesterday she asked me to stretch my hands so as to handcuff me and put me in prison. In fact, there are some hundreds of blinded and handcuffed men from the Bethlehem area who are presently held in a military camp above Beit Jala. In another game, Jara takes a tree branch and uses it as a walking stick, playing a man who is injured by Israeli shooting. Afterwards she picks up the stick and makes a shooting gesture. Like kids do, she brags in front of the other children that she belongs to the shabab, the armed young men. She parades with her breast forword, shouting ween al-sha’ab ‘arabi - where is the Arab people, a well-known song often displayed on local TV. Meanwhile she keeps laughing and tells other kids not to be afraid. She divides the world in people who shoot and who don’t. Watching Tony Blair on TV, she suddenly asks, “Does he shoot?” And when we dream a bit about swimming once all this is over, she does not want to go to the swimming pool in Jerusalem, “because the Israelis will shoot us there.”

Although in normal times I abhor the repeated loud honking by cars, I now long to hear something other than the almost idyllic silence hanging over Bethlehem. Yesterday morning we heard a long siren. I quickly walked out to hear whether there was any emergency, but it turned out to be the sirene to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Due to the proximity of the settlement of Gilo, we hear the sirene almost as loud as in any part of Israel. I wonder about the reactions of the people here to this absurdity.

More lively sounds come up. At our neighbour’s garden Jara and I play with the dog. The dog starts barking at another dog, the other dog responds, a cat joins the choir, Jara’s friend is able to imitate a monkey’s cries, and in seconds a jungle is created. Some neighbours put their face out of the window. A semblance of ordinary life. Then there is the sound of a faraway shot. Silence follows immediately. After a while the voices of life dare to come out again yet never comfortably.

The night’s silence can be threatening, too. When our neighbour’s dog barks during the night, we are concerned that soldiers are near the house. The dog never barks without reason.

During both day and night we hear sporadic shooting, a single shot or the ratatatat of heavy gunfire. It is unclear where it comes from or to what it is directed. Suzy says that in her neighbourhood - she lives close to the Nativity Church area, which is really besieged - tanks roll by and shoot aimlessly. She does not see anybody on the streets. The fire just serves to intimidate people. At one point she and her sisters and mother heard fire from all sides and they were all running in the house to seek cover, each choosing a different room, calling each other to join. She tells that during the latest opening hours, she left the house to immediately meet eye to eye with a sharpshooter who stood on a balcony just some ten meters away. She froze, and strangely she thought he froze too. After a lifetime moment she continued walking.

I hear that a couple from Dheisha were being shot at during such opening hours and forced to flee into a nearby house. They could not return to their own home and remained separated from their baby. More than ever Mary and I are relieved that nothing happened during and after the birth of Tamer. This afternoon Mary hears that during the weekend the pregnant sister of a former neighbour got contractions, called for an ambulance but could not get any car close to her home which is located in a tense area. She finally went on foot, and fortunately managed to reach the hospital in time. In her area (Wadi Ma’aleh), people cannot even leave their houses during opening hours and now face severe shortages in food and medicine. A friend of ours, who is a social worker, is all the time phoned by people from that area who ask her counsel: What to do with their kids, how to get food? She heard that opposite the mosque at Manger Square the second floor of a family was taken over by soldiers who made a mess in the rooms, broke furniture, and left feces on the floor. Other people in that same old part of Bethlehem downtown have also been chased away, or forced to take refuge in part of their home. This especially happened in buildings chosen by sharpshooters.

On local TV we watch an Israeli balloon hanging above the Church of Nativity complex, apparently in order to videotape what is happening in and around the area and to spot possible attempts to bring in food into the church where both the clergy and the Tanzim who have taken refuge there face shortages of all kinds.

The worst thing that can happen to the people - except for being injured or killed - are the house to house searches. Mary lately had a nightmare about it. Fortunately it does not happen in our area, yet. We hear stories of polite soldiers who do not damage house wares but we also hear stories of cruelty or humiliation. Sometimes male youth are picked up and taken into detention; something of which the parents are afraid. Elias, my colleague in the United Civilians for Peace monitoring project, tells that close to his home the mayor’s house was searched. The man was ordered to stay outside in the garden while his daughter was forced to show the soldiers every room. The soldiers also asked him to take off his clothes. He asked them: “Do you know to whom you are talking?” “Yes,” they said, “you are the mayor.” He of course refused to obey. I wonder how his future talks with Israeli mayors will be.

In our area we manage. Unlike others, we do have electricity, water and telephone, and can leave the house every three days. Maybe that after a while the shops will run out of supplies. But it is nothing compared to what is happening in a city like Jenin. Mary tells how she heard a mother on the radio who told that the bulldozers destroyed her house to make way for a road through the camp. At the moment of the interview, she was desperately looking for her child of three who could be under the rubble.

We think of Jara, and don’t think. Filling the bath tub for little baby Tamer, we make ourselves up for one of those little moments of daily life which we cannot help but to cherish — as if through Tamer we hold on to life.