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March 29, 2002
Memories of Bethlehem

By Lissa Caldwell


Having been back in the States just a little over twenty four hours, I was awakened out of a sound sleep with a rush of adrenaline. There were flashes of light in the sky and the sound of explosions in the distance. My first thought was, 'Oh God they're bombing again!' It took me a few seconds, laying there in the dark, to realize I was in my own bed and the flashes of light and the sounds I had heard were only thunder and lightening. The sights and sounds of the past 3 weeks in Bethlehem will be forever etched in my memory.

Before this last trip to Bethlehem I used to see an F16 in the sky and think how incredible it must be to fly such an awesome machine. Now that I have been on their receiving end they have somehow lost their mystique. After having survived four nights of bombing by F16s in Bethlehem I now know the terror they bring. Some nights they would attack in the early evening - other nights in a predawn raid. Occasionally they would just fly overhead to tease the populace with a kind of psychological mind game. We were completely defenseless and the IAF was very much aware of that.

At the first sound of F16s flying in the distance that dreaded anticipation begins to fill your psyche. You know what is coming. Slowing the jets begin to circle ever closer to their intended target. Then suddenly they come in fast and low screaming so loudly the sound is deafening. There is a brilliant flash of light and such a massive explosion that the ground shakes and huge buildings are reduced to rubble. The concussion shatters windows for blocks around the target and whole buildings are shaken as if mere children's toys. Then the whole process starts again and again until your nerves like the surrounding windows are shattered and sleep is impossible for the rest of the night.

Before the invasion we would walk down each morning to the target site and take pictures of the previous night's destruction. The first night they hit a small building very near my hotel in the middle of a heavily populated shopping area. It had been a small gunsmith's shop but was billed by the Israelis as a weapons manufacturing plant. The main target had been the police station and barracks in the middle of Bethlehem. It had been the only remaining Palestinian police station of any consequence left standing in the West Bank. Homes and businesses across the street and in the surrounding area were severely damaged and windows were blown out and shattered over a large area. The streets were literally covered with glass and debris. It was heartbreaking each day to see families and shopkeepers digging through the remains of their homes and businesses trying to salvage what they could. Each day I was stabbed through the heart knowing that each of these bombs and the jets that delivered such destruction were in fact paid for with my tax dollars.

Each morning life would go on seemingly as usual yet there was a general anxiety that is a consequence of life under such conditions. Most days when I would go to Beit Sahour or wherever I knew I must be sure to be home between 4 and 5 each afternoon before the shooting started. After the bombings and shelling started it was decided I would be safer staying with Elias and his family instead of the hotel. Many afternoons I had to be dropped off in Bethlehem by friends either below Manger Square or on a street below Elias's house so that I could quickly walk or run back through the increasingly deserted streets. It was often too dangerous for cabs or friends to drive me all the way back as the road home is high and exposed in places. It was an eerie feeling to walk down the main shopping streets and find all the shops closed or closing at such an early hour. Sometimes the machines guns would have already started their sporadic firing and occasionally there were Apache helicopters hovering in the area. They frightened me as I had often watched them firing from my hotel window. Apaches are often used in targeted assassinations which many times miss their intended victim and kill innocent bystanders. One afternoon I was a little late getting back from Beit Sahour. There were helicopters circling and I ran up the steps and alleys trying to reach Elias's house as fast as possible. I had no sooner closed the door behind me when a huge explosion shook the house. Such is life under occupation.

One Monday before the invasion we set up some appointments in Jerusalem and made plans to visit the Old City. Arriving at the Bethlehem checkpoint in a hired car with yellow Israeli license plates we expected no trouble - after all we were Americans. What ensued, with absolutely no provocation on our part, was my near execution. I came within a hair of being shot and killed by an aggressive Israeli commando for absolutely no reason. If not for the intervention of another Israeli soldier I would be dead. I know I will never come as close to death as I did that day. After the incident, which left me shaking with anger and pumped full of adrenaline, we walked up to the checkpoint and demanded to speak with the officer in charge. Suddenly no one spoke English, how very convenient. Later on I did file an official protest with the American Consulate. Nothing will come of it of course but it did make me feel that I had at least done something.

During my stay in Bethlehem Ariel Sharon launched the largest and most violent incursion into the West Bank in twenty years. Beit Sahour was surrounded but was not invaded thank goodness. Beit Jala was invaded by tanks and put under curfew. Anyone caught outside his home would be summarily shot. Homes, churches and mosque were taken over by soldiers and turned into sniper outpost. Areas in Bethlehem were also invaded by tanks. For days even in those areas free of Israeli incursions people were afraid and shops were kept closed. There were very few cars on the streets. Hebron Road, one of the main streets of Bethlehem, was bulldozed in sections and water mains were broken and phone line were deliberately cut. Deheisha and Aida Refugee Camps in Bethlehem were invaded under the pretense of looking for 'suspected terrorist.' This has become a catch-all excuse for the murder and destruction wrought on too many West Bank towns and villages. We knew of the plans to invade the refugee camps several days before it actually happened. Any terrorist hiding in the camps would have long since fled by the time the IDF invaded. Even so the Israelis arrested all the men and boys in the camps between the ages of 14 and 40. All were blindfolded and had their hands tied with plastic wire. Eventually most were released. During the invasion several innocent women and children were shot and left to bleed to death. The Israeli army refused to let ambulances and medical personnel into the camps to attend the wounded. One doctor was killed and several medical personnel were injured in attempts to help the wounded. The Red Cross was also not allowed to enter the camps.

I have never been into Aida Refugee Camp but it was closer to us and we could hear the explosions and gunfire emanating from there. During the day we could hear the wailing and shouts of the funerals. I went to Deheisha last April and know how densely populated it is. The camp covers one square kilometer and is home to 11,000 people. The tiny streets are no more than 6 to 8 feet wide and the Israelis put ten tanks inside the camp carving tunnels through what used to be people's homes. The destruction is all so senseless and so merciless. What kind of people can do such things???

After the F16 bombing raids stopped we found ourselves the on the receiving end of the Israeli tanks roaming the streets of Beit Jala and those stationed across the valley in the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo. I had been sitting by an open window one evening writing in my journal when the first missile hit. (We left the windows open to prevent them being shattered by the concussion during attacks.) I screamed and nearly jumped out of my skin as the house shook with the deafening sound of the explosion. We all ran to the stairwell of the house as it was the safest place. As the missiles continued to rain down all around us the next door neighbor called and asked us to come to his older ground floor stone house. So amid the missiles and gunfire we hurriedly ran down the back stairs in the dark to the safely of his home. Even in such times Palestinian hospitality takes over and we were offered tea and sweets. We stayed there several hours until things began to quiet down.

In the light of morning we found that the school in front of us had been hit and a home and pharmacy directly above us was hit with four missiles. Over the course of two nights it was utterly destroyed. The innocent Christian family who had been sitting in their living room during the first night's attack miraculously escaped unharmed. I could hardly choke down the tears as I walked through what had once been their lovely home. What possessions were left were covered with shards of glass and mounds of dust and debris.

The next night Bethlehem University, a Catholic institution, at the end of the street was hit. The beautiful new humanities building built by the US government was hit with four laser guided missiles. Another building near the entrance was also hit. Walking through the glass covered streets to look at the damage the next day I learned that each of these American made laser guided missiles cost $180,000. Windows were blown out all over the small campus and the cost of clean up and glass replacement alone will be substantial. Because of the sophistication of the missiles involved there is no chance these were accidents. All of these civilian targets had absolutely nothing to do with hunting suspected terrorist or the defense of Israel. This is a classic example of the wanton destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and illegal collective punishment.

I gained a new respect for the Palestinian militias this trip who so valiantly try to defend their towns and villages. They are armed with nothing more than old rifles and some small machine guns bought on the Israeli black market. They are fighting the finest technology America can supply F16s, Apache gunships, and tanks fitted with sophisticated laser guided missiles. They are truly freedom fighters and I gave them a smile and a thumb's up sign whenever I encountered them.

Even in the midst of all this war and destruction I never felt even the slightest anti-American sentiment at least not from any Palestinian. I was always treated with the utmost kindness and respect by both Christians and Muslims alike. Most Palestinians were so very grateful that we would come at such a time to try to be of help and to show our love and solidarity with them. In talking with dozens and dozens of Palestinians over the course of three weeks I never once heard anyone utter anything but an earnest desire for peace. During this trip my respect and love for the Palestinian people has grown immensely. Far from being the terrorist they are so commonly portrayed in the American media, their courage, compassion and forgiving nature are a testimony to the finer qualities of humanity.

Lissa Caldwell

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