Saturday, 27 October 2001

BETHLEHEM, Palestine -- Jesus taught his followers that they were to be "salt" and "light" in the world (Matthew 5.13,14). How do we do this today? One way to be faithful to our calling is to be witnesses for truth, and witnesses against wrong and injustice. In this way we contribute toward the justice and healing required for the preservation of life and the holding back of evil and death.

I want to bear witness today to what I have seen in Bethlehem this week. What I am reporting to you is not more political propaganda to trump one cause over another. It is simply a record of a few of the events taking place this week. It is up to you to make sense of them and explain them to yourselves and others.

At least 22 people from Bethlehem have died in the past 10 days. The current cycle of killings began on October 18th with the assassinations of three young men who were on Israel's "wanted" list. Any death is tragic, but those of us who live elsewhere are usually able to read about such deaths from the newspaper over our breakfast and shrug them off as the unfortunate but unavoidable price of conflict.

However, the stories of the 19 others who died this week, and the events surrounding them, are deeply disturbing, and force us to look deeper into the reality of the Palestinian experience under occupation. I can tell you a few of these stories first hand.

On Friday, October 19th, Musa George Abu Aid , 19 years old, was shot in his living room standing next to his father, and collapsed dead as his father stood helplessly. An Israeli sniper could evidently see shadows through the living room window curtains. Identities were not important to the shooters.

On this same day a young mother in a village just south of Bethlehem had gone into labor and was experiencing complications. Her husband put her in the car and tried to rush her to the hospital in Jerusalem. He was blocked by Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint near Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem and refused permission to pass. Despite all his desperate pleadings they maintained their refusal as precious time slipped away. His wife, Marian Suboh, 28, and her unborn child died waiting for hope.

On Saturday, October 20, a young 17-year-old boy named Johnny Thaljiah was walking across Manger Square at noon. If any of you have come to the Church of the Nativity as a pilgrim in the past three years, you may have met Johnny. He would often sit at the entrance to the Church and hand out scarves or other covering for those who wished to enter the Church but were inappropriately attired. An Orthodox Christian, on this day he had just been at worship with his family in Nativity Church. He was carrying the baby of one of his cousins, trying to make the baby laugh.

Less than 100 feet from Nativity Church, he was shot by an Israeli sniper from a hill nearly a mile away. Johnny gently lay the baby down on the stones of Manger Square and then fell over dead. Johnny was not on anyone's "wanted" list. He was a Christian worshipping with his family in the oldest Christian church in the world.

Johnny was shot dead for sport, serving as human target practice. Perhaps a wager or competition between Israeli soldiers to see if they could hit a moving target at such a distance. Like shooting a rabbit or squirrel. They are very good. And their equipment was the very newest and best sniper rifles U.S. tax dollars could buy. They had good success.

Later that day Rania Elias Kharofah, a 22 years old Orthodox Christian and a mother of two young children, convinced her husband that she drive to get the food because it might not be safe for a man. While on her way to the store she was shot in the arm by sniper fire. She got out of her car and took refuge in a shop. An Israeli tank approached the shop and all the people in the shop ran out into the street. Rania, wounded and unable to run, tried to crouch back in a corner and hide. The tank shelled the shop and covered it with machine gun fire. Rania was later found dead with multiple bullet wounds.

Also on Saturday Eisha Abu Ada, 39, and a mother of 8 children, left her family in Jerusalem to go to Bethlehem and visit her parents to see if they were safe and to seek to provide anything they might need under the siege. This brave, devoted daughter was shot by a sniper bullet in her parents yard.

On Sunday, October 21st, Muhammad Baraga, 30, a deaf person, was shoot by Israeli soldiers in front of his home because he could not hear their orders to him.

On Tuesday, October 23rd, Christian leaders in Jerusalem organized a march to pass through the checkpoint at Rachel's tomb to break the siege. Television cameras joined the procession. When they arrived at the checkpoint the blockade had been lifted and tanks mysteriously disappeared throughout Bethlehem. For two hours no sniper fire was heard as the Christian procession made its way to the Nativity Church at Manger Square and held a worship service to pray for the people of Bethlehem.

By early afternoon the Christian protesters were gone and the tanks were back. That night and for the next two nights wide destruction was visited on Manger Street beginning one block from our office building. As I walked up the street on Thursday, I counted at least 21 shops on the west side of the street that were completely demolished and their contents destroyed. Israeli tanks had simply driven into the shops, crushing walls, doors, and goods inside. In some shops they fired shells so that they were also set on fire. Some of these ruined buildings included the humble one or two room homes of the shopkeepers.

The tanks had also driven down a narrow back alley behind these shops, shelling the crowded, meager homes there, strafing families' windows with machine gun fire, and dislodging foundations, walls and balconies with the tank tracks and cannon barrels. The whole scene was like some bizarre video game was being played out on the streets of Bethlehem.

On the east side of the street nine other shops had been destroyed in the same manner. Six of these shops were at the street level of the Paradise Hotel, owned by the Abu Aitah family, Orthodox Christians from Beit Sahour (Shepherds Field). Fires broke out from the destruction of the shops and caught an overhead canopy on fire.

The Palestinian fire department tried to arrive on the scene to save the six-story hotel above the shops, but they were denied access for hours by the Israeli tanks and soldiers. Sami Awad and I stood by helplessly one block away (we could not get closer because of menacing tank guns) and watched as the flames went higher and the rest of the hotel was gutted by fire.

Throughout the middle of the week, much similar wanton destruction was done in other parts of the city that we were unable to see first hand for several days because it was dangerous to move about due to sniper fire. The multi-storied, modern Kar'aa Shopping Center building was shelled and burned. Shells were fired upon Bethlehem University. The maternity hospital of St. Joseph's was partially destroyed and infants had to be evacuated under fire. Bullets strafed the main hospital in Bethlehem several times.

Constant shelling destroyed numerous homes in the Aida and Azza refugee camps. Most of you would not even call many of the structures of these camps homes. Refugee families have been living in pitiful, tin roofed cement brick cubicles since 1948. By now the number of people, or even families, per room is unthinkable by our standards. But these poor buildings were their home. They have tried to make improvements and take pride in their camp quarters. At least they provided some kind of shelter from the winter cold. These are the poorest of the poor in Bethlehem. Nonetheless, their "homes" were believed worthy of concentrated destruction. Shelling on these refugee camps is still going on this very day.

At first we heard all these reports in disbelief, but by Friday were able to drive around Bethlehem and see much of this damage with our own eyes. And the killings continued. On Wednesday, October 24th, Issa Jalil el-Ali, a 55-year-old Catholic Christian who was the father of five, was hit by a sniper bullet bringing food home to his family. His wife was in the car beside him but could no nothing as he died. Sami Awad and I attended his funeral at the Church of the Nativity on Thursday. During this day, 39-year-old Salama al-Dibis, sniper bullets killed the father of nine children, at the front of his house. On the afternoon of Friday, October 26th, 28-year-old Faras Salahat was joyfully running last minute errands in preparation for his wedding that very night. He was shot by sniper fire and the families gathered for the wedding feast attended his funeral the following day.

The stories go on like this but I can't bear any more and I am sure you can't either. All of the events I am describing to you have been senseless acts of murder and destruction. No military objectives were achieved, accept to give the message to the people of Bethlehem that the Israeli army and government could do anything they wanted at any time to anyone and no one in the world would be able to stop them. The officially designated name given by the Israeli military for this operation in Bethlehem was called "Knife through Butter". They knew it would be easy and that little resistance could be given to the most heinous acts. They must also know that such an operation can only create deeper despair and greater fury among the population of Bethlehem, historically one of the more peaceful towns in the West Bank. Why?

The senseless destruction of what will surely be millions of dollars of property will significantly damage the economies of Bethlehem and Palestine as a whole, economies already collapsing from 13 months of siege. For individual shopkeepers and property owners it will mean their complete ruin. Many believe that the best hope to end what Israel is labeling "terrorism" is to create a viable State and economy in the West Bank and Gaza that will give the Palestinians secure land and homes and with them new hope and purpose. Why then is the Israeli army, which declares that it is "only seeking to secure the safety of our Jewish citizens", engaging in acts that will unquestionably lead to deeper hatred and strongly encourage many more young men to take up arms to defend their families and their families honor? Why?

One last story. Today, Saturday, October 27th, Sami Awad and I went to visit the father of Johnny Thaljiah, the young boy killed in Manger Square one week ago. After sharing his grief for a time, he asked us to go with him to attend another memorial service taking place in Manger Square for several other young men killed during the week. More than 100 people had gathered in the Square, representing many families from Bethlehem, to express their grief and share their condolences with the families of the dead. As the service was in progress, suddenly five or six shots whistled over our heads across the Square. People began running for cover in various directions, mindful that Johnny had been killed in the Square in just this way.

Sami and I began walking across the Square with Johnny's father, heading back to his home. When we got near the spot where Johnny was killed another volley of shots was fired over the Square. Then Sami pointed to one of the crosses on top of the Church of the Nativity. This time their target was a lighted Orthodox cross on the roof of the Church. From a mile away, and at the angle they were shooting, this was an extremely difficult target. But the expert snipers managed to hit the center of the cross with several shots. The sacred grief of the gathered mourners had been disrupted by the desire of the Israeli snipers to send us a message. And the message was?

If such an act had been committed in the U.S. against a Church or Synagogue, those committing the act would be hunted down and subjected to very severe penalties of laws that address "hate crimes" (acts committed as expressions of hatred toward any religious or ethnic group). In the occupied territories of Palestine, such acts are sponsored by the military of Israel and supported by U.S. tax dollars.

Why was a cross used as target practice? Why are innocent civilians being terrorized in their homes and murdered in the streets? Why is property being senselessly destroyed? Why? Why? Why?

And who will stop any of these things from happening again tomorrow?

Israel is very confident that no one will. Who would dare?

Bearing witness from Bethlehem,

Robin Wainwright, Holy Land Trust U.S.A.
Sami Awad, Holy Land Trust Palestine

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