Civilians in the cross-hairs
As Israel rages through the West Bank and Gaza, Bethlehem celebrates another dismal Christmas under occupation, Khaled Amayreh reports
The Israeli army killed Palestinian civilians in retaliation for two Palestinian attacks targeted mainly against Israeli soldiers. Israeli troops, backed by tanks, armoured personnel carriers and helicopter gunships, retaliated by attacking Palestinian towns and villages, killing and maiming scores of Palestinian civilians.
Palestinian civilians in the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza leaving the area where Israeli troops clash with Palestinian gunmen. The IDF raid, in retaliation for the killing of two Israeli soldiers, left at least 10 dead and scores of others injured. Israel simply termed the operation "IDF activities".
On 23 December, hours after two Israeli soldiers were killed by Islamic Jihad fighters outside a Jewish settlement in southern Gaza, Israeli forces raided the nearly decimated Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza, killing at least 10 and injuring more than 50 others.
Rafah Governor Majid Al-Agha described the 36-hour rampage as a massacre. "[The Israeli army] are murdering innocent people just like the Nazis were doing in Europe during the Second World War," Al-Agha said. "Where is the conscience of the world?"
The increasingly deferential Israeli media made no mention of the civilian victims, parroting statements by the Israeli army spokesman that "nine Palestinians were killed in IDF activities in Rafah."
As soon as IDF troops pulled out of Rafah, an Israeli helicopter gunship assassinated at least four Palestinians, including a military official of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. Earlier, a fifth Palestinian was killed as he approached the no-man's land separating Palestinian residential areas from Jewish settlements. The Israeli army said the man was attempting to plant a bomb, but Palestinians contend he was trying to cross to Israel to look for work.
Almost simultaneously, a Palestinian suicide bomber affiliated with the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) blew himself up near a group of Israeli soldiers at a busy intersection east of Tel Aviv, killing three soldiers and a civilian. The Israeli army withheld the identity of the casualties for nearly 36 hours, apparently to give the impression that the bombing -- the first in more than two months -- targeted civilians. However, the fact that soldiers, not civilians, were targeted made no difference to the Israeli government, as was apparent in its reaction that same night.
The bomber, identified as Said Hanani, came from the village of Beit Furik, outside Nablus, which has seen its share of the heavy-handed Israeli occupation. According to noted Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, Israel made life for villagers in Beit Furik an enduring hell. "Beit Furik is a place where women in labour and the sick have to risk walking through fields to get to the hospital in adjacent Nablus," Levy said.
"Few Israelis are capable of imagining what life is like in Beit Furik: the almost universal unemployment, poverty, endless siege and humiliations of life inside a prison. A young man like Hanani, who was 21, had no reason to get up in the morning other than to face another day of joblessness and humiliation."
Israeli society, however, seems to have little or no interest in acknowledging the fact that the source of Palestinian frustration, grievance and violence is the occupation.
Meanwhile, the killings continued. This time in Nablus, the largest town of the West Bank. Israeli troops and tanks rampaged through the city for six days this week, probably for the hundredth times in less than two years, terrorising the population, vandalising property and killing a student, identified as 17 year-old Rajaei Rayan.
"They are terrorising civilians as never before. In the past they used to force families into one small room and lock it up. Now, they kick everybody out and take over the entire house. This is sheer terror," said Hanin Mohamed, a local journalist who witnessed the Nablus raid. "What kind of an army is that which terrorises civilians and opens fire on school kids returning home? This is even worse than the Gestapo," she added.
The Israeli army withdrew from Nablus again on 30 December, leaving behind a number of demolished homes and dead civilians, as an Israeli army spokesman put it, "in routine IDF activity".
The shoot-to-kill or shoot-to-maim policy has all along been Israel's modus operandi towards the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since the beginning of the Palestinian Intifada nearly 40 months ago. The policy backfired this week when an Israeli soldier guarding the separation wall -- now increasingly dubbed the "apartheid wall" -- shot and seriously wounded an Israeli Jew taking part in an international demonstration protesting against the building of the wall.
The incident sparked vociferous protest and recriminations within Israel, prompting the Israeli army to carry out a thorough investigation and even consider filing criminal charges against the soldier who pulled the trigger. However, the bulk of the rightist camp, including the defence minister and chief of staff, effectively defended the soldier's actions. They, along with many army commanders and right-wing ministers, tried to give the soldier the benefit of the doubt by arguing that, "he didn't know that he was shooting at a Jew."
Just another day
As in the three previous years, Christmas joy is in conspicuously short supply in the birthplace of Jesus. As in towns throughout the West Bank, life is steeped in poverty and despair. Sealed within the town by a series of Israeli military checkpoints, with the memories of tanks rolling through the streets, it is difficult for residents to remember that "'tis the season to be jolly".
"It's difficult to even put a genuine smile on your face," says Jerryes Handal, a souvenir shopkeeper. Sitting cross-legged and sipping strong Turkish coffee inside his Manger Square shop, he explains: "We have very few tourists, and consequently very few customers; and remember this is the third year in a row [that the situation has been this difficult]." Handal sums up the situation in Bethlehem: "Closure breeds unemployment, and unemployment breeds poverty and poverty causes depression. Christmas has become just another day."
In Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity, forlorn bulbs were dangling on a huge Christmas tree, as religious authorities sought to create a festive atmosphere ahead of the arrival of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michael Sabbah, and his entourage. Sabbah, the highest-ranking Catholic official in the Middle East, led the traditional midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity. While urging believers to seek hope in faith, he reminded the world that "occupation and oppression" are the root cause of violence in the holy land. "As long as this situation persists, there can be no real peace or tranquilly," he preaches. Sabbah has been preaching the same message for years, but to no avail.
Indeed, far from heeding his advice, let alone the pleas of the international community, Israel continues its "bantustanisation" of the occupied Palestinian territories.
This fear was expressed on Christmas Eve on large banners draped throughout Manger Square: "Stop the Wall" and "the holy land doesn't' need walls, but bridges," references to the "apartheid" wall Israel is building around the West Bank, and "Don't turn Bethlehem into a ghetto." Ask any Bethlehem citizen about the source of his or her troubles and they will tell you one word: seger, the Hebrew word for closure.
Bethlehem is a closed city, surrounded by roadblocks and checkpoints manned by trigger-happy Israeli soldiers whose main job is to make sure that the inhabitants of the biblical town remain there. "We are confined to a few square kilometres. We can't leave our town, and when we attempt to leave, we are subjected to harassment and humiliation," says Victoria Bishara, a Bethlehem resident.
"We are not clinically depressed," she says, raising her voice slightly, "but I assure you there is a dearth of joy in this city." Shrugging her shoulders, she adds: "In any case, how can you feel good when you are surrounded by tanks, roadblocks and soldiers pointing their guns towards you?"
Um Youssef Freij, an elderly Christian woman from Bethlehem, laments the old days when "everybody was smiling and the streets were bustling with joy." These days, she explains, "we can't even travel to Jerusalem a few kilometres away. The Israelis have narrowed our horizons, and most of us are staying in our homes."
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, however, tries to be optimistic. According to him, the economic situation in his tourism-dependent town is better than last year, but "not very much", he admits. "Pilgrims come for a few hours and leave, and there is no holiday spirit. We are a city under siege and Bethlehem's northern section is almost completely paralysed," he explains.
The Israeli army withdrew from the city five months ago, leaving a trail of destruction and many Palestinians dead or injured. Initially, the estimated 140,000 Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the town breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that the worst days were over.
Not so, says George Qumsiyya, from the Bethlehem's twin town, Beit Sahour. "Israel has turned Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and adjacent villages and refugee camps into a great prison," he says. "It is a shame that some Christian countries support Israel. Don't they know what Israel is doing to Christians of the holy land?"
Israel argues that the tight closure on Bethlehem is intended to prevent Palestinian "terrorists" from entering Israel and launching attacks on Israeli targets. However, virtually all Palestinians, and even many Israelis, don't accept this pretext.
"I am 200 per cent sure that the real aim is to inflict pain and suffering on us," says Beshara Al-Hadweh, of Beit Jala, another twin town of Bethlehem. "We know they are lying, they [Israelis] know they are lying. The problem is that much of the world doesn't know that they are lying."