Church Of The Nativity
In The Little Town of Bethlehem: Today, 2007 And 2002...
By Eileen Fleming
[Gaza-Bethlehem, May 11, 2008] The Palestinian fighters who were deported from the West Bank after the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem appealed to Palestinian leadership on Saturday to "end their suffering and return them to their home city of Bethlehem."
Saturday marked the sixth anniversary of the end of the five-week standoff with the Israeli military when 200 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians, took refuge in the church. In a negotiated settlement of the crisis, 26 fighters were banished to the Gaza Strip. Another 13 men were deported to Europe.
While I was in Bethlehem in July 2007, I met with one of the spouses of the men who remains in Gaza.
Those who could, staged a demonstration in front of the United Nations headquarters and a spokesperson for the group, Fahmi Kan'an said, "On this day six years ago we were deported from the West Bank city of Bethlehem after for a 39 day siege in the Church of the Nativity during which eight civilians were killed."
"The deportation crime is added to the series of crimes of the Israelis against the Palestinians and coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the Nakba which was followed by the 1967 setback and the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians into the Diaspora including the expulsion to Marj Az-Zuhur in south Lebanon in 1992 then the deportation from the church of Nativity," he added.
Kan'an continued, "We came here today to the UN headquarter to appeal to the UN Secretary General to take responsibility to put pressure on the Israeli government to end our suffering and secure our return to our homes."
The deportees also said that the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is a "sacred and legitimate right" guaranteed by international law. They also called for a restoration of Palestinian unity through dialogue.
On July 25, 2007, accompanied by my friend and translator, Daniel, who was born and lives in downtown Bethlehem, I arrived at Aida refugee camp just after 1 PM, with hopes to meet and speak with any mother who would share stories about her sons.
Just before entering the winding narrow alleys of the camp an old woman eating ice cream under the covered porch of a small grocery story caught my eye, as she only had one.
I asked Daniel to ask her if she knew any mothers and sons. Immediately the diminutive lady dressed in traditional Palestinian Muslim attire, jumped up from her chair and beckoned me to sit down. Her grandson then appeared from inside the store and offered me and Daniel ice cream bars. Within three minutes, his parents also arrived and I learned that the 23 year old grandson in our midst was the only one of six brothers, who is not in prison.
The family of refugees are from Abu Gush, where a settlement now stands upon their homeland.
Mahmoud had been incarcerated for the last two years without charges and was scheduled to go to court a few days after our visit. Mustafa had been imprisoned for eight. He worked for the Palestinian police and was picked up for carrying a gun. A few years prior his family told me Ariel Sharon released him and for ten months he walked as free as one can, in occupied territory. One day the Israeli soldiers returned and picked him back up, claiming, "his release had been a mistake."
The family believed a camp spy turned him in for being 'active' against the occupation.
Sadaam, then 16 had spent the last two years behind bars. His mother travels to one of the two main prisons for children –constructed with the assistance of USA tax dollars-under the age of 17 in Haifa, every few weeks to see him and has been refused visits many times.
She did see him two weeks prior and although healthy and clean, he is thin, depressed and angry. Sadaam was charged with having a knife, but his family denies the charge.
Daniel tells me it is common practice for the IDF to claim rocks were thrown at them and were attacked by those with knives.
After I am offered beverages, the father of the clan stays at the store while grandma takes my hand and her daughter and grandson lead the way to their home in Aida camp.
Upon the living room wall is a landscape mural with a bullet hole delivered by the IDF. Exquisite art work is brought to me, made in prison by the three sons. Their mother brings them silk, ribbons, fabric, buttons, gold and white beads, cardboard boxes, paints. They created a replica of the Al Aqsa Mosque, a sail boat, plaques and finger sized icons inscribed with hearts and their names. I am offered one constructed out of the top cover of a mattress; it is barely an inch wide and two inches long, stuffed a quarter of an inch think and sown by hand. In Arabic it say's- Sadaam and Khalid- a friend who was recently released from prison.
On one of the plaques is inscribed: "To my loved ones, I left my life in the shadows, the life without you is too painful to even mention. See you later. Mahmoud and Sadaam."
The young sister of the brothers, mother to two small boys tells my friend/translator; "I left Gaza on March 20, 2007. My husband has been there six years. In 2004, when Bethlehem was besieged, the Franciscan father Abraham Feltus sheltered my husband in the Church of the Nativity."
Reported by the National Catholic Reporter on 4/26/2002, "the standoff between the Israeli Defense Force and the 250 Palestinians holed up inside the church along with 45 monks, nuns and priests…is taking a toll on both those inside the church and without. Bethlehem residents living near Manger Square, where the church is located, continue to live under curfew. The Israeli army has said it will continue its siege, which began April 3, until it captures about 30 men inside the church whom the army says are wanted as terrorists.
"Reached by telephone April 16, Franciscan Fr. Amjad Sabbara, parish priest at St. Catherine's Church, the Latin church that adjoins the 1,400-year, old Orthodox basilica enshrining Christ's birthplace, said the most serious problem for all those at the Church of the Nativity is water. The Nativity complex, which includes Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian monasteries in addition to the basilica, has one well. With some 250 more people now living there, water is running low. So far, the Israelis have permitted the delivery of a crate with 20 bottles of water, but no food. Sabbara reported that those inside the church are living on one meal a day.
"A youth who escaped from the Church of the Nativity April 15 provided a fuller picture of the squalid conditions inside the church. In an article printed in The New York Times April 17, 16-year-old Jihad Abdul Rahman said cold and the stench from rotting bodies and gangrenous wounds drove him from the church. There was no water for washing and only one toilet for the 250 Palestinians taking shelter inside the church, Rahman said.
"Dwindling supplies of food and water are not the only problems those inside the church are contending with. The Israeli army is exerting psychological pressure by blasting loud music and shrieking cries at night as well as intermittent demands to those inside the church to give themselves up.
"It's the Noriega technique," said Bethlehem resident Br. Kenneth Cardwell, referring to the tactics the U.S. government adopted in its efforts to dislodge former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from the Vatican embassy in Panama City where he sought refuge in 1989. "They play really repulsive music very loudly."
"They broadcast loud commands to surrender in the middle of night. They explode huge explosive charges and then lesser flash-bangs I call them. We're a half-mile away and we wake up five, six times a night with this racket. There are blimps with a cable below. There's been a drone flying overhead all day today.
Yesterday colored gasses wafted across the square," Cardwell said. He added that a box dangling from a large crane the Israeli army has brought into or close by Manger Square "gave a laser light show the other night and that was pretty exciting."
"…all the computers of the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem have been destroyed in what he called a deliberate attempt by the Israeli government to destroy the Palestinian economy and the Palestinian Authority.
Cardwell said, "We watch on TV the great support Israel is receiving from the Jewish people in the United States. If they only knew what this government is doing to the Palestinian people, they would repent in dust and ashes. American Jewry has a very high sense of moral responsibility for the widow, the stranger and the orphan, and they just are blind to what the Israeli government is doing."
Eileen Fleming, Reporter and Editor WAWA:
Author "Keep Hope Alive" and "Memoirs of a Nice Irish American 'Girl's' Life in Occupied Territory"
Producer "30 Minutes With Vanunu" and "13 Minutes with Vanunu"