scared thrilled scared thrill scared thrilled

I find most things in life both scary and thrilling. I suppose I should hope it's always this way, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of work.

Friday, September 07, 2007

I've had the good fortune to be introduced to many wonderful people here in Israel/Palestine since my arrival, both jews and palestinians. I've enjoyed many passionate political discussions about what's going on here (many end with hand-wringing and worried remarks about the future -"hopefully things will change, inshah Allah (if God wills it)"). But tonight was my first conversation with someone about what "it" was like. If you've got the time, read the short (yet unabridged) description of the seige of the church of the nativity I found on wikipedia (the most trusted source by elementary school students the world over ... ok, it's a good place to start at least). This is all that I found there. When you're done that I'll highlight a few things, and tell you what Saliba told me.

"From March to April of 2002, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) carried out “Operation Defensive Shield” in the West Bank. As a part of these large-scale military operations, Bethlehem was invaded in a declared effort "to root out militants". On April 1, 2002, Israeli tanks surrounded Bethlehem. The next day, Israeli military planes, tanks and troops entered the city, sparking heavy criticism due to the nature of the site. Approximately 200 Palestinians--including a number of militants--fled the advancing Israeli forces into the Church of the Nativity. During the siege, the Church bell-ringer and nine Palestinians inside the Church were killed and many more wounded. A monk was also killed in his residence by indirect fire during the siege. By early May, Bethlehem was the last West Bank city where the Israeli forces were still present in the wake of “Operation Defensive Shield.” A large fire was accidentally started during the siege. According to a PBS documentary, an IDF flare was responsible. Frontline The Israeli Army left only after the full evacuation of the Church of the Nativity on May 22. At least one monk had been trapped in the basilica with the Palestinians." wikipedia.

First, it's good to know just a touch about Saliba. I was introduced to him through Walida, someone I met on the street. Saliba and his family own a restaurant which sells hummus and falafel (best I've ever had). So Walida introduced me and told me Saliba would give me a good price (ie, not the price for tourists but the local price). That was a week ago, and since then I've eaten at Saliba's almost every day. It's really really good. It may be the case, however, that hummus gives me gas... So, Saliba and his family arrived here in 1948 as refugees from Jafa (the Israeli state being created in 1947, many Palestinians found themselves refugees shortly after, their homes and property appropriated. Many ended up in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, many stayed in Israel, many moved to what will one day, inshah Allah become the Palestinian state. Saliba and his family are of this sort). Saliba was telling me how difficult life was during the first and second intifadas. The most potent story though concerned the seige of the church of the nativity. First remove from your mind the idea that this is some far off place where things are always violent and it's not really a big deal for people. This is Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. There are buses with tourists. There are universities and monasteries. This is Saliba's home. The city of refuge for his family since 1948. Through their hard work and industriousness they've built a life and a business, and invested themselves in this rich and colourful community. They are friends and family and this city is the fuit of their labour. So when he describes the tanks rolling through his streets, into the square in front of the church of the nativity, past his shop where he sells falafel, he is not a journalist or a politician or a political analyst. He's a son and a father and a student and the owner of a falafel shop.
During the seige the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) set up a tower in Manger Square, in front of the church. From it they were in position to snipe anybody who moved. Also, as a form of psychological warfare, they played an obnoxious hissing sound, "SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS" night and day at an obscene level. Saliba lived a ways away, but it was still enough to drive him nearly crazy. He doesn't know how those living nearby (remember, this is the center of a densely populated city) retained their sanity. Perhaps they would have been convinced to leave, except that for that entire period of time (Saliba says it was 40 days) everyone in the greater vacinity, including Saliba and his family, was forced to stay indoors, or face the sniper's gun. With the lights extinguished at night, Saliba described the entire family on the floor, hugging the walls of the rooms and not daring to move. In the day, he said, you could possibly move from room to room, but at night you simply sat against the wall. There were a couple of days in that period where they dared venture from their homes to try to find something to eat. But for 40 days they were essentially confined to their home, out of sight of windows, staying low. Though he didn't give me numbers of those killed during the siege the figure of 11listed by wikipedia would probably make him furious. He mentioned the priest, the bellringer, who was killed. He gave his name, which I've forgotten, and said he was the sweetest man. That everybody knew him and he said hi to everybody, even those he didn't know. Imagine this man, this important figure in your community, the one who has rung those bells every day for ages, on his way to ring them for the last time. That was when he was shot.

Saliba also told about the time his apartment was shot at by tanks, how his mother felt the shards of glass. He talked about the German doctor who was treating a wounded person in the street outside Saliba's apartment and was killed with a missile shot from a IDF helicopter. The pieces of his body, he said, were on the trees and on the rocks. There was nothing left larger than a coke can.

Saliba's story, the story of every Palestinian affected by the violence of the last 60 years of occupation, the story of every Israeli whose dream of a homeland was affected by the reciprocal violence, these are all a part of the human history of this place. The political history, comparatively, is a giant ball of shit. And it's the human history which moves me. It's what makes the politics matter. It's what makes people know that now is the time for peace, for compromise, for good and true politics. Tanks must not roll through the streets of Bethlehem again. Saliba's children must be able to grow up without the fear that the guns will be trained on them as they were their father. And the walls surrounding this place must fall like the walls of Jericho. Things must change. Inshah Allah. If God wills it. I believe he does.

Political post script: the conference to be held (hopefully) in DC in November must include all the countries of the Arab world, specifically Syria. The US must swallow its pride and allow this. Syria, it seems, is desparate to cut its ties with Iran, they have the power to effectively disable Hezbollah and Hamas too, they are ready for a new ally and the US needs to get off its high horse and allow, encourage, this. The problem with being on a high horse is you're a long ways from what's happening on the ground. A peace conference without Syrian support will produce another failure. And every failure makes true success even more difficult. There. Blah.

That's it. I've had enough Arak to put me well to sleep. Tomorrow I got to Taybeh, a teeny vilage in the West Bank, with a couple of friends. There's a festival there. Should be fun. I apologize for the lack of pictures in recent posts. I get very sketchy wifi at my apartment. But I've got a number of them to show you all, I just need to haul my laptop in to the office to get a good enough connection. Maybe that will happen Sunday.

Ok. cheers all. Thanks for reading this whole thing, if you did.


At 6:49 PM, Anonymous Johann said...

This is amazing stuff.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Angela said...

so glad you're posting Marty! good writing...feel like i got to listen in on the conversation(s) thank you for sharing it!


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