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May 07, 2002
The Last Action Heroes

By Israel Shamir


The East celebrated Easter in May, long time after the West this year. There was little of festive spirit, as the Nativity Church of Bethlehem had been besieged for a month. Starved priests and laity had laid in the grotto where the Virgin gave birth to Christ; bodies of policemen slain by Israeli sharpshooters were piled under the golden Tree of Jesse mosaic. From time to time, the attackers propelled flares to the wooden roof of the basilica and watched the weakened by long fast defenders putting the fires off. But Easter brought its miracle, and it was called ISM.

What is ISM? For the reply, go a few hundred yards away from the church, on the broad terrace overlooking the gentle descent of the hills towards the Dead Sea, above the road double bend; there is a small Byzantine sanctuary adjacent to a water cistern. Eastern wind blew a layer of desert dust over its floor mosaics, and proverbial thorns broke through their red crosses. It has an aquatic character like many shrines of the Holy Land and it is called Bir Daoud (David's Well), in memory of a legendary exploit.

Once, the conquering army from the cities of the plain declared War on Terror and sealed this hilly village in an effort to catch a local man, a Palestinian terrorist leader Daoud who had attacked the conquerors' settlements. But his companions, a motley band of men, challenged the invaders' order. They dared the road checks, defied security measures, sneaked into the village and, against enormous odds, had brought a draught of water from the Bethlehem village well to Daoud, or King David as we call him now.

Millennia passed by, and this exploit was repeated by the new version of the King David's companions, the International Solidarity Movement, or ISM, as the land of Palestine has become the scene of most dramatic confrontation and international involvement for decades, if not centuries. Young European and American men and women, who were born too late to join the International Brigades in Republican Spain 1936, have joined the ISM and came to the green hills of Bethlehem and Hebron. They came in troublesome time: Israeli leaders carefully laid a plan to expel and exterminate Palestinians and create a country as Jewish as Germany was Aryan. The ISM volunteers by their very presence derail this plan and save local peasants from destruction and expulsion. They live dangerously: play the cat-and-mouse game with Israeli mechaslim ('exterminators'), dodge snipers' bullets, stay in defenceless villages with the peasants. If King David is too far for you, think of them as the Last Action Heroes, of Schwarzenegger's fame.

Though some of them have Jewish parents, they rejected separatist frameworks 'for Jews only', perpetuated by Peacenik Zionists. They stand for equality, for the 'International of Good People', as Isaac Babel would say. They came from the land of Folke Bernadotte, and the land of Abe Lincoln, and the land of T.E. Lawrence. Some of the ISM volunteers saw action in non-violent protests of Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa, confronting the two-headed dragon of Globalisation and Zionism. Others came to the Holy Land in April 2002, just in time for Israel's Easter Offensive, as Sharon's willing executioners demolished houses, uprooted olive trees, deported thousands of Palestinians into concentration camps, slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children in Jenin refugee camp and Nablus. When Israel's Juggernaut rolled into Bethlehem, over two hundred local people sought refuge in the church.

The tradition of refuge actually precedes Christianity and was known to mankind from the dawn of civilisation. Churches always provided the place of refuge, and Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame supplies immediate reference. In Latin America persecuted people, illegal immigrants and labour leaders often were saved by hiding in churches, while during WWII, many thousands of Jews found refuge in Christian churches and monasteries. That is why people of Bethlehem believed they will be safe beyond the thick walls of the oldest church in Christendom.

The Nativity church of Bethlehem was built in AD 325, one of the first three grand Christian edifices of the Holy Land, and the only survivor. Its turbulent history was, on a balance, rather lucky one: the invading Persians refused orders of their Jewish commissars to destroy it in AD 614, and the Saracens refused similar orders of Hakim, the mad Caliph of Egypt in AD 1009, while on both occasions its sister church, the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, was burned and destroyed. In AD 1099, Tancred, the future Prince of Galilee, received at Latrun, thirty miles of hostile territory away, the reports on enemy plans to destroy Nativity, and he rode through the night in the head of his knights and relieved it.

Crusader Kings of Jerusalem chose to be crowned in Nativity, and kings of England and France sent to its see their precious gifts. In AD 1145, most beautiful mosaic adorned its walls, still showing the Tree of Jesse, and the Tree of Life, and Doubting Thomas touching the wounds of Christ Resurrected. In 1932, the British uncovered gorgeous floor mosaic of 4th century, and in AD 2000, Yasser Arafat rebuilt the Manger Square in front of the basilica. The church was adored by millions of believers through the centuries, and that is why the people believed they will remain safe in its protection.

But the Jews do not care for sanctity of churches. Granted, there are differences of opinion: Zionist disciples of Rabbi Kook, the main religious denomination in Israel, believe all churches must be destroyed soonest, even before the mosques. For them, eradication of Christianity is a more important task than elimination of Palestinians. Their traditionalist opponents think there is no rush, and it should be done by the Jewish Messiah of Vengeance, whenever he will arrive. Secular Jews just do not care. That is why the Jewish army had no mental difficulty to surround the church and to begin the cruellest siege in its long history.

Forty monks and priests remained on duty in the church, together with 200 refugees. For a month, the Israelis did not allow to bring food or water to the besieged. As in the medieval sieges, people starved and died, trying to survive on rainwater boiled with lemon leaves and grass. Stench of corpses and of infected wounds filled the old church.

State-of-art cameras assisted sharpshooters who hung outside and shot at every moving figure. They killed monks and priests as well as refugees. Even before the siege, they shot dead a choir boy Johnny, and as I write it, on Easter Saturday May 4, they murdered another churchman on duty. They did it with impunity, as they had allies in the media of the West. The Danish fairy tale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, wrote of the Snow Queen's magic mirror that distorts reality and changes beautiful things into ugly ones, and vice versa. In the magic mirror of CNN, this oldest church became 'a place where some Christians believe Jesus was born'. The refugees were described as 'terrorists'. The monks and priests became 'hostages' in the magic mirror of the Snow Queen. Cries of the besieged would not come through the Israeli-managed western media.

In this dark hour, ISM rode in. As the Holy Land had prepared for Good Friday (majority of Palestinian Christians belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem), two dozen volunteers divided into two groups: one of them staged a diversion in the best tradition of Alistair McLean's Guns of Navarone. While Israeli soldiers were taken aback by their foolhardy bravery and proceeded to capture them, the second group rushed forward, and entered the gates of the church. They brought with them some food and water to the starving beleaguered refugees, something to look forward for Easter Sunday. Probably in the history books, their breakthrough will be called the Easter Rescue.

When Zionism will be laid to rest, names of these daring men and women would be carved on the walls of the church. In the sacristy, next to the sword of Godfrey de Bouillon, the Defender of the Holy Sepulchre (the leader of the First Crusade refused the crown, but accepted the title) there will be baseball hats and sneakers of the Defenders of Nativity, those who got into the church, to share hunger and danger of the siege: Alistair Hillman (UK), Allan Lindgaard (Denmark), Erik Algers (Sweden), Jacqueline Soohen (Canada) Kristen Schurr (USA), Larry Hales (USA), Mary Kelly (Ireland), Nauman Zaidi (USA), Stefan Coster (Sweden), and Robert O'Neill (USA), and those who sacrificed their freedom, created diversion and were jailed: Jeff Kingham (USA), Jo Harrison (UK), Johannes Wahlstrom (Sweden), James Hanna (USA), Kate Thomas (UK), Marcia Tubbs (UK), John Caruso (USA), Nathan Musselman (USA), Nathan Mauger (USA), Trevor Baumgartner (USA), Thomas Kootsoukos (USA), Ida Fasten (Sweden), Huwaida Arraf (USA).

The diversionary group was arrested for the dreadful crime of bringing food to the starving refugees in the Church on Easter: At first, men were separated from women and taken to jail in an illegal Jewish settlement of Etzion. Women were sent to Jerusalem, and brought to court, where they were sentenced to be deported. While on the way to the jail transport, the English girls jumped off and escaped their guards. One of them was caught by an Israeli civilian, who did not hesitate to pull a knife on a girl. Other two are on the run, together with the Swedish girl, Ida. They showed what is real civil disobedience, how a non-violent and humanitarian action could make difference even in the brutal circumstances of the Israeli occupation. Now, the men are still in jail in the occupied Hebron, in the hands of its fanatical settlers.

Though they committed no offence in the territory of Israel, they have been sentenced to be deported and forbidden to enter Israel for ten years. One hopes the apartheid 'state of Israel' would not last that long. Their sentence proved that for Israelis, 'Palestinian territories' are just a legal fiction, to be applied or discarded whenever needed. We could do the same and demand equality for all, Jew and Gentile alike, in the whole of Palestine.

As a professional journalist, I regret that this tense drama of siege, breakthrough, diversion, relief, salvation, arrest, escape and confrontation at Easter, in the shadow of the great church, the best stuff there is, did not reach the mass audience of Europe and America, that it was not broadcasted by all TV stations and reprinted by all newspapers.

But the regret does not diminish my joy, as one of the kids who broke the siege was my own son.

Israel Shamir is an Israeli writer and journalist. He lives in Jaffa. His other articles are available on the site www.israelshamir.net

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