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Peace banner displayed during gunfire

Bethlehem, Palestine

On the morning of Aug. 14, we were awakened at 5:30 by gunfire. From the balcony of our rooms at the Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem, we could see the bright streaks of bullets and shells flying on the nearby hill of Beit Jala, a place where international peace activists have been living with Palestinians since July in an attempt to shield them from harm. We could vividly picture the scene in Beit Jala having slept there ourselves only two nights before.

As one of a four-person Catholic Worker Peace Team, I wondered if we should try to brave a trip to the battle zone, but before I could even suggest it, Palestinian soldiers took up a position alongside the Good Shepherd Store across the street from our hotel. They began firing at the Israeli soldiers entrenched inside a fortress guarding Rachel’s tomb, the only site in Bethlehem sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Sustained gunfire from both sides effectively pinned us down inside our hotel where we took photos, prayed that no one would be killed, and displayed our peace banner from the window.

By 9:10 a.m. occasional traffic resumed and we deemed it safe enough to venture out. We had to reach the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem to obtain visas for a Palestinian woman and her 10-year-old daughter who needs emergency surgery in the United States. This girl, Marwa Al-Sharif, has a bullet lodged in her brain from a shot that came through her bedroom window July 17. Her blood splattered on her 12-year-old brother who went into shock and has been too afraid to sleep in his home since. Marwa was in a coma for five days at Ah-Ahli Hospital in her native Hebron.

Doctors told her parents that she was not expected to live, but miraculously she began to stir and, over eight more days, gradually regained all her faculties. Nonetheless, the U.S.-made Israeli bullet remains a grave danger. Getting Marwa and her mother to the Connecticut hospital that has agreed to do the delicate operation to remove the bullet meant jumping over incredible bureaucratic roadblocks erected by the various governments involved. It also meant getting out of our hotel during a firefight.

The members of our Peace Team, each from a Catholic Worker house in a different location, included Chris Doucot of Hartford, Conn., Jessica Stewart of Ithaca, N.Y., Joe McKenzie Hamilton of New York City, and I of Worcester, Mass. As we cautiously began our one-mile walk to the Israeli checkpoint leading out of Bethlehem, we noticed that there was only one other pedestrian in sight -- an older woman clutching a bundle.

As we neared her, the shooting began again in earnest, forcing all of us to seek cover behind a parked car. A Palestinian family waved to us to come inside their home where we discovered that the “bundle” was a six-day-old infant who needed to reach the hospital near the checkpoint. Since three of our group are parents, we could identify with her sense of urgency. We escorted the Palestinians and the baby up the road, acting as human shields on all sides. Shots flew overhead, one ricocheting nearby and forcing us to take temporary shelter in a cul de sac. We finally managed to bring them safely to the exposed crest of the hill where the Catholic relief agency Caritas runs a modern hospital for infants.

Later on, when we told someone at the consulate that people were shooting in Bethlehem, she shrugged, “Another day in the Occupied Territories.” Is such cynicism our only resort? A Palestinian worker at the Bethlehem Internet cafe where I am typing this article told me that peace will “never come.” A Jewish elder at the militant Kiryat Arba settlement said that the lion would lie down with the lamb only after a bloody war, which he hoped would come soon. A Franciscan priest at the church of the Nativity said that peace required “divine intervention” and may not come in his lifetime. When we approached teenage settlers in Hebron, before we could even say a word, they shouted, “We hate you! We kill you!” while giving Nazi salutes and dragging their fingers across their throats. This certainly is a place for strong emotions.

There can be no argument that violence abounds in the Holy Land. On the day after we arrived, a suicide bombing at a Sbarro restaurant in West Jerusalem took the lives of 15 Israelis. On Aug. 10, while we interposed our peace banner between stone-throwing Jews and Palestinians, we witnessed soldiers beating a Palestinian woman and man, just after riot police attacked international demonstrators, tore their signs to shreds, clubbed and arrested six of them. Blood from the Palestinians and an Israeli police officer struck by a rock stained the East Jerusalem street. This morning, we found ourselves embroiled again in gunfire during a curfew in the Old City of Hebron. On the day after Israeli commandos assassinated a PLO militant, we saw soldiers firing and shortly thereafter discovered a truck with its tires shot out and a bullet embedded in the driver’s side headrest. Miraculously, no one was hurt.

This kind of violence can be easily found in the mainstream press, but what is harder to see is the day-to-day violence of the occupation. While waiting seven hours to obtain Israeli travel permits for the mother and child, we met Palestinians who had spent days in fruitless and humiliating pursuit of Israeli permission for all kinds of simple things, such as visiting a father in the hospital or going to Jerusalem to pay a parking ticket. We saw houses of Palestinian farmers and shepherds that were devastated by Jewish settlers. We saw a countryside crisscrossed with “by-pass” roads open only to Israelis and foreigners. We saw Jewish settlements on virtually every hill in the West Bank. The only places where Palestinians are not treated as third-class people are inside the islands of Palestinian control. One taxi driver told us, “Jamming the Palestinians into 6 percent of the West Bank is not peace. It’s prison.”

Thankfully, not everyone is in despair. Neta Golan is just one of many brave Israeli Jews who oppose the occupation so strongly that they put their lives on the line. She leads the campaign to prevent fighting by living with Palestinians in contested areas.

Ghasson Andoni, the executive director of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement, is a strong voice for nonviolent resistance to the occupation in cooperation with Israeli and Palestinian activists. Women in Black, a feminist Israeli group, hold vigils for peace every week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Rabbis for Human Rights accompany Palestinian farmers as they harvest their crops in an effort to protect the farmers from settler attacks. The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment documents abuses and circulates the information. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions documents and protests this practice of collective punishment. There is even a group of American and Canadian Jews with a program called Olive Tree Summer, which replants ancient Palestinian olive groves uprooted or burned by settlers. Efforts for peace are not dead here, but they are beleaguered. Palestinians tell us over and over, “We sacrificed 70 percent of historic Palestine at Oslo, but the Israelis are not satisfied with that. We have no more to give. The occupation must end.”

An experience I had outside the settlement of Har Hova encapsulates for me the huge hurdles and slim hope for peace that still exists. While waiting for our group to return from harvesting wheat with Palestinians, I saw a middle-aged settler drive up in a green mini-van full of small children. He began taking pictures of our bus and me.

I approached him with my hand outstretched and said, “Shalom.” He refused to shake my hand and shouted,” You want to give all the land to the Arabs and kill all the Jews!” Ignoring my denials, he said, “You want to put all my children in the cemetery.” I told him that I would never want such a thing and that his children were very beautiful. I waved to them, but they only looked on nervously, so I tried to show the father pictures of my own children. He ignored me, closed his car window, and began shouting into his cell phone.

When I held a photo up to his window, he drove a few feet forward, which left me facing his children who seemed perplexed as to why their father was shouting at this man who was smiling and offering his hand. The blond girls and boys smiled tentatively as I showed different photos of my daughter and sons.

Finally, the father noticed that I was still there and began to drive away.

When I waved goodbye, his children smiled broadly and waved back.

Scott Schaeffer-Duffy is a member of St. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker Community, Worcester, Mass., along with his wife, Claire, and their four children.

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001