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October 24, 2001
Convoy to Bethlehem

By Israel Shamir


A new Audi car, squashed like an empty cigarette box in the ashtray of a nervous chain smoker, greeted us at the entrance of Bethlehem. Other cars were flattened into a thin sheet of glass and steel. Israeli tank crews love to smash cars and dustbins like any vicious punks. Little kids crouched on the corner and intensely played with spent cartridges, making the most of a sudden lull in fighting. Bethlehem was quiet, for the first time since Saturday, October 20, when Israeli Merkaba tanks rolled into the City of Christ, to implement Sharon's pet project, the reoccupation of Palestine.

It was quiet, and a new force was entering the area: The Palestinian Christians of Jerusalem had come to relieve the besieged neighbour. It was a wondrous sight, reminiscent of the Crusades, when the Solidarity Convoy led by bishops and clergy of all denominations, Catholics, Orthodox and Muslim, carrying crosses and banners broke the strangling ring of Israeli blockade and moved by the heavily damaged streets towards the Church of Nativity. As opposed to Bush "Crusade" in Afghanistan, this Crusade was felicitously met by Christians and Muslims alike, as there is no dispute between these intertwined communities. We went by the burned out Paradise Hotel (it received direct hit), by double-bent electric pillars, by pictures of young boys and girls killed by Israeli sharpshooters, and local people went out of their shelters to join the procession.

Israeli tanks left the main streets and crawled away into their lairs, like dragons disturbed at prey. On the way, I met so many old friends, local shopkeepers and guides. They were quite despondent: "As things are, with this war going on, they said, there are no tourists, no income, and no hope. Jerusalem and Bethlehem stand together or fall together". Bethlehem is but a suburb of Jerusalem and I used to come so often with my tourists and pilgrims to this bourgeois city of spacious villas, king-size souvenir shops, grand Greco-Palestinian families, neat nuns, tourist crowds and many expatriates, flourishing thanks to the Church of Nativity, the great Justinian edifice and the oldest extant building of Palestine.

The plaza in front of the church, the Manger square, was full of local people who used the chance to see some sunlight after days behind the shutters. Last Sunday at the church doorstep, an Israeli sharpshooter killed a local 16 year old boy, Johnny Thaljieh, and his soft face looks from a hastily printed poster. This square was rebuilt by PA in Italianate style just two years ago, before the Millennium festivities. Unlikke the days of Israeli direct rule when it was an incongruous parking lot for the Border Police jeeps and tourist buses.

In the church, among the priests and laity, I saw a tall American with a proud upper lip, long curly hair and exotic head gear. It was Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, of Rabbis for Human Rights. "I thought I was the only Jew here", he said. "I am sure thousands of Israelis would come if they would be aware of situation". It is true, Israeli TV, docile as Stalin's media, downplayed the invasion and broadcasted peaceful pictures of friendly tanks on quiet streets. Still, the previous night, Jerusalem hosted a big Jewish rally calling for expulsion of all non-Jews from the Holy Land. Israeli TV reported on Friday night just before the invasion, that two thirds of Israeli Jews support this lethal solution. However, every one of us has his freedom of choice, and Rabbi Milgrom chose Judaism one can live with. I was mighty pleased to see him: God knows, this Sodom needs a few just men.

In the church there were pockmarks of bullets: Israeli tank crews trained their heavy turret machine guns on the cradle of Christ. It reminded me of William Dalrymple's "splendid, effective and impressive (Financial Times)" book, From the Holy Mountain[i], on "a wave of attacks on Church property in Israel. A Jerusalem church, a Baptist chapel and a Christian bookshop had been burned to the ground, there were attempts to arson the Anglican churches in West Jerusalem and Ramleh and two churches in Acre. The Protestant cemetery on Mt Zion was desecrated no fewer than eight times".

He could add the story of Daniel Koren, an Israeli soldier who pulverised with bullets the images of Christ and the Virgin in the church of St Anthony in Jaffa. Dalrymple mentions the deeds of the Likud Mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, who destroyed the newly discovered Christian monasteries and churches in Jerusalem in order to obliterate the very memory of Christian presence in the Holy Land, the same Mayor Olmert who demolished three more Palestinian homes this morning while we walked the streets of Bethlehem.

In the Grotto of Nativity, few candles burned and a Palestinian family quietly prayed by the Star, as did their ancestors since the cruel predecessor of Sharon, King Herod the Great. It is no strange coincidence that this invasion began while the US Air Force lays low Afghani cities. Apparently Sharon's government decided to utilise the US Afghani operation as a diversion for the conquest of Palestine. A thief sees in any calamity just another opportunity to steal. While our eyes are attracted to the deserts beyond the Oxus River, while America is scared silly by the white powder in an envelope, while humanitarian agencies groan under the masses of starving Afghanis, while Anglo-American fleet blocks possible Iraqi or Syrian relief, the Israelis grab the remainder of Palestine and eradicate the memory of Christ from His native land.

Sharon's supporters in the American mass media gave him support by rising the current wave of Arab-bashing and general racist chant. "Osama Bin Laden's shifty, oily, semitic features leer from every news bulletin, in a barely concealed appeal to the American viewers' racism. Dr Joseph Goebbels could not have done it better", as reported from America by the British historian, David Irving. He should know, he was a biographer of Goebbels.

President Bush demanded immediate Israeli withdrawal. He did it in sotto voce, saving his "there will be no discussion" line for Afghanis. We shall see whose will prevails, whether President's chapter goes as far as Israel, whether this bark could be backed by a bite.

In P. G. Woodhouse hilarious novel, A Damsel in Distress, there is a wonderful line fully applicable to the President Bush: "Your argument seems to be without a flaw. But what then? We applaud the Man of Logic, but what of the Man of Action? What are you going to do about it?"

After the great church, our procession moved to Beth Jalla, a sister city of Bethlehem. Beth Jalla's two hospitals were shelled, and ten people were killed by indiscriminate Israeli fire. The bereaved families stood in the church yard, clutching portraits of their dead and receiving condolences. Especially touching was the stunning beauty of Rania Elias, a 20 year old girl killed by Israeli shell in her own bedroom. She sat for her portrait in a white wedding dress, the dress she was buried in. Beth Jalla is grim but defiant. On its streets, stood young men with AK machineguns. C'est la Tanzim, people's militia, explained a priest to his fellows. Dashing Tanzim boys in their berets reminded me of Fidel's young barbudos, as if the Palestinian revolution regained its second breath. As the convoy moved out, the tanks moved in, and a chatter of small arms echoed over the twin cities.

A big dark-skinned Oriental Jewish taxi driver picked me up at the checkpoint. The massive steering wheel of his Mercedes turned like a toy in his huge hands. He looked like a twin of a giant Tanzim guerrilla I saw fifteen minutes and five hundred yards away, in the Aida refugee camp. "I lived all my life with Arabs, he said. My wife tells me, I am an Arab in my heart. We should live together. As things are, with this war going on, there are no tourists, no income, and no hope. Jerusalem and Bethlehem stand together or fall together".

Yes, despite the official brainwashing, on both sides of the Divide, there is an understanding. The Holy Land can't be divided, it should be tended jointly by all of us, as equals. There is enough room to pray, to play, to grow olive trees, write software and guide tourists. Tanks must go, together with artificial border between Israel and Palestine.

Israel Shamir is an Israeli writer living in Jaffa. His web-site www.israelshamir.net
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