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Destruction on the streets of Bethlehem

Editor’s note: Following is NCR Senior Writer Margot Patterson’s account of a visit to the city of Bethlehem March 8. Earlier that day Israeli forces had killed 36 Palestinians during attacks in that city. As NCR went to press, Israel was pulling its troops out of the area.

Patterson arrived in Israel March 7. Further reports will appear in future issues.


It was one of the worst days of the 17-month Palestinian intifada. That morning the Israeli army had gone into the Occupied Territories and was conducting operations in Gaza and in Tulkarm. When she got into the car, Reem, the Palestinian “fixer” who was acting as a combination translator and liaison, said that in five hours that morning the Israeli Defense Force had killed 22 Palestinians in Gaza. “It’s a massacre,” Reem said. “Gaza is like a hell.”

On our first attempt to leave Jerusalem for Bethlehem, we were turned back at a checkpoint. The Israeli soldiers waved us back from a distance. “Look at how far away they’re keeping from us. They’re frightened,” Reem said. It was no wonder. John, the Norwegian journalist whose taxi I was sharing, said that 13 or 14 Israeli soldiers had been killed at checkpoints in the last two weeks.

Bethlehem was quiet when we drove into town. Stores were closed. The wooden shutters on the windows were shut. No traffic on the street. We turned a corner and saw a few elderly men dressed in long white robes walking along the street. Then ahead some young boys, most no older than 10, were piling objects in the street in the path of an Israeli tank parked in the distance. Farther down Yasser Arafat Street we saw a pulverized police compound. Reem gasped. She had been in Bethlehem just three days ago, when the police headquarters was still standing. The building was new and very nice, she said. We drove on, looking for people to talk to. A group of boys stood on a street corner. When we stopped to ask questions, they told us that at 4 a.m. 60 Israeli tanks guarded by four Apache helicopters entered Bethlehem by five entrances. We asked them if it wasn’t dangerous for them to be outside when a curfew has been placed on the city.

“What’s the use to be inside the house or out? The Israelis are killing everyone,” one of them said.

The boys told us that a woman was shot in her home before her five children. At noon, just two hours before, Israeli soldiers had killed a doctor who was trying to evacuate her and other wounded from Bethlehem. Ahmed Alwhelsh, 17, shows us the blood stains on his arm from putting the doctor in the car to drive him to the hospital. He’d been outside, he said, because the soldiers were entering homes. “They enter the houses, humiliate people and beat people up.”

A small police station stands across from the Church of the Nativity. The church is Bethlehem’s most famous monument, built on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born. The Palestinian Authority policemen say they can’t talk to the press but advise us to try the mayor of Bethlehem. I noticed a poster of a young boy on a wall. Reem told me his name is Johnny. He was 17 when he was killed by an Israeli soldier shooting from a mountain opposite the town. I thought only suicide bombers were martyrs, but Reem said Johnny and anyone killed by the Israeli army are viewed by the Palestinians as martyrs.

We left Manger Square but not before I poked my head into the church. The church was open, and an Orthodox priest was chanting prayers. Lanterns gleamed in the darkened church, empty but for a handful of people who were walking back and forth in the chancel.

Mohammad Madani, the Bethlehem mayor, told us that at 11 o’clock the previous evening aircraft filled the sky around Bethlehem. Then at midnight, an F-16 bomber destroyed the police compound. Nobody was inside. At 3 a.m. the Israeli soldiers entered two refugee camps, Dhieshey, with about 4,000 refugees, and Ayda, with about 3,500 inhabitants. Madani said five Palestinians were killed in the camps, including the doctor, and about 20 Palestinians were injured. There was no shooting from the camps, no provocations, said Madani, who called the raids on the refugee camps part of an organized campaign to raid camps in the territories.

Madani told us the Israelis are targeting the Palestinian Authority because if the Palestinian Authority is destroyed there will be nobody to negotiate with. Israel is trying to erase the concept of having a Palestinian Authority, but a peace agreement will be signed with Yasser Arafat or nobody, Madani said.

Entering Bethlehem, we had driven around a trench onto the embankment. In the time we were in Bethlehem, the soldiers had come back and dug up the road entirely, making it impassable. As the driver turned the taxi down different roads looking for a way out of town, Reem’s cell phone rang. When she got off the phone, she told us that her friend is worried because she couldn’t get through to her family in Tulkarm. The Israeli army was cutting water, electric and telephone lines there.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s a war,” she said.

Margot Patterson’s e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 29, 2002