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Nun moves in ‘to be a witness’

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Israeli shells hit the first-floor apartment of an American nun, Sr. Anne Montgomery, in early December, an ironic start to the Christmas season in Bethlehem. Montgomery, 73, had arrived just days before in the Palestinian village of Biet Jala in the Bethlehem district on the West Bank. She is a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Montgomery, along with Pierre Shantz, a Canadian, was sent to Biet Jala to represent the Christian Peacemakers Team. Their mission, Montgomery said in a telephone interview with NCR, was simply “to be a witness to what is going on.”

Montgomery said that all the windows on the side of her apartment were smashed and that a tank shell “broke a large hole in the window-sill on the opposite wall. Some of my neighbors had clothes on the line on the night of the attack. Every single garment has bullet holes in them.”

On the streets of this once affluent town, which sits within view of Christ’s birthplace, the remaining residents, she said, are constantly asking, “Where is the peace?”

The gunfire has hurt Bethlehem’s economy, driving tourists away. Israeli media reported Dec. 13 that Israeli officials might declare Bethlehem a closed military area on Christmas Eve, keeping worshipers away.

“People here feel that nobody in the world cares about them,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery, who was alone during the attack, took refuge under a mattress in the bathroom after a shell shattered her bedroom window. On her cell phone, she called members of the Christian Peacemakers Team in the West Bank city of Hebron, spoke with the U.S. Consulate and, during the last hour of shelling, fielded interviews with journalists from Reuters and The Baltimore Sun.

The apartment, located at the intersection of two streets named Martyr and Intifadah, faces the Jewish settlement of Gilo. Israeli shelling of those streets on the night of Dec. 5 began after Palestinian gunmen fired on Gilo. Palestinians say Gilo, built on land that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed to Jerusalem, should be part of an independent Palestinian state.

Beit Jala’s 10,000 residents are predominantly Christian. The Palestinian Authority controls part of the town. During the 30-year Israeli occupation of Beit Jala, large portions of Palestinian-owned land were confiscated to accommodate three Jewish settlements and two bypass roads. Gilo, population 30,000, is one of these settlements. Built in 1970, it sits atop Beit Jala mountain.

Montgomery said that “frustrated Palestinian young men will come out at night and shoot at the settlement.” The Israeli Defense Force retaliates by shooting at the houses of Beit Jala. “[Israeli] tank shells make no distinction between whether there are human beings in the building or not.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli army and air force had been deployed in defense of Gilo. The first shelling of Beit Jala began on Sunday evening, Oct. 21.

Christian Peacemakers have had “no conversation with the gunmen,” according to Montgomery. “There is no way we can persuade the men to do otherwise,” she said, but later added that residents of Beit Jala are angered by the gunmen’s actions. Palestinian homeowners chased away four gunmen immediately after hearing gunfire on their streets, Christian Peacemakers reported. But not in time to avoid Israeli retaliation.

Gene Stoltzfus, U.S. coordinator for Christian Peacemakers Team, said Israeli weapons are far more sophisticated. “We are most uncomfortable putting this fight on an equal footing,” he said.

Shantz said that in the last 10 weeks of fighting, 300 families have fled Beit Jala. Because the fighting is most severe at night, Montgomery said that many residents sleep elsewhere and return to the town during the day to assess damages. She also reported that an Israeli shell killed a German doctor who was in Beit Jala to tend the wounded. His death is the town’s first fatality.

Shantz said that Palestinian gunfire injured a resident of the Jewish settlement of Gilo in mid-December.

Christian Peacemakers Team is a violence-reduction project supported by the Church of the Brethren, the Mennonites and congregations from the Society of Friends. The Chicago-based organization has fielded a team in Hebron since 1995. “The point of being in Beit Jala is to be a deterrent,” said Stoltzfus. “We are trying to do what we can to get the situation to cool down. We would pull out if it made no sense to be there.”

Sr. Kathleen Hughes, Montgomery’s provincial, said her order is “very proud of Anne. It is a matter of integrity for Anne. For all of her religious life, she has placed herself at the margins, consistently taking great risks to bring peace. Her work is a great joy for us because we believe that where one of us is all of us are.”

Stoltzfus said that his organization is urging all Christians to observe five minutes of silence during Christmas services to pray for peace in Bethlehem.

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000