October 2001

Monday 29th October
Well, the Israelis did indeed withdraw overnight. The first thing I did this morning was check the hill! Sadly, despite the fact that they have gone, this latest Israeli spree of wanton damage and killing will not be forgotten by anyone here. Ever.

Everyone I know has been affected in some way. One friend’s cousin, who was also his best friend, was killed by a sniper last week in Bethlehem. He was in his home when he was shot. Each time I see him now all he can do is talk about how angry he is, or tell me of the plans they were making together. Like getting married on the same day, and looking forward to a future that they would share. Now, all he wants is revenge. Until last week he had always advocated peaceful solutions to the problems here, but not any more. I know he has already been approached by people who want to recruit him in the armed struggle. He said he doesn’t want to do that, that he is too scared, but he does want revenge. Who knows how long before he might pick up a gun?

The destruction that has been wrought here is quite unbelievable. One needs to see it with one’s own eyes. The holy town of Bethlehem, which had been renovated and refurbished and renewed for the year 2000, is little more than a war zone. Buildings have been shot at, shelled and destroyed by tanks and bulldozers. Both public and private property has been attacked. Roads have been torn up where the tank tracks have ripped through the tarmac. Traffic lights and street lamps lie in mangled heaps. Bullet marks and gaping holes scar the faces of shops, offices and peoples homes. Systematic destruction executed in a cold and calculated fashion.

The refugee camps, Aida, Al-Azza ande Deheishe, are victims of some of the worst consequences of the attacks. The people who live there had very little to start with. Now, some have nothing. One man, his home a mere pile of rubble, having been demolished by an Israeli bulldozer, asks how on earth he is meant to house his family of eight. They had just they rooms to live in before last week, now they have none. His face told the story of despair, hopelessness and grief that is being felt by so many people here now, and is indicative of the general mood. We have all been tainted in some way by the ugliness and the violence perpetrated by the Israeli forces.

No matter how hard I try to be more optimistic, I am finding it increasingly difficult. I remember having a terrible feeling of foreboding when I was leaving to go to Haifa for the weekend. In this instance I was proved correct as, the moment I got off the bus, Suzan called to tell me of the assassinations in Beit Sahour. My new dread is the greater Israeli plan. I am beginning to believe that their real objective is to re-occupy the whole of the West Bank and Gaza. So many times I have seen something happen, the international voice of concern lamely cry out for a few minutes, and then let Israel proceed as Sharon sees fit. Tanks are still in Palestinian cities, the longer they stay, the more “normal” it appears to become, and the world seems to have a short memory. Like the persistent drip, drip of a tap, Israel will continue it’s clandestine march into Palestine, clothed under the guise of “the fight against terrorism”.

Sunday 28th October
2.30pm. I was just leaving to go to the internet café to post this up. My neighbour was outside and he asked me if I had seen the tank. “What tank? ” I asked. Standing outside my gate, I could just make out a tank and an Israeli flag on the hill south west of my home.

I dashed back in to get my telephoto lens, dashed back out and was just crouching in the gate, focusing, when an almighty burst of gunfire rang out directly over my head. At least one bullet ricocheted on the fence, and I have never moved so fast in my life. I dashed to the bottom of my steps and listened to the exchange over my head. It only lasted a few minutes, but all the traffic had stopped on the road to the other side of us as it was too dangerous to drive across the junction of the top road, where my gate is.

My neighbour’s young son ran out excitedly, wanting to look for bullets. After a few minutes of quiet I went back up the steps to see if I could see or photograph anything. Just as I was taking a picture, a huge cloud of dust and smoke filled the horizon as one of the tanks moved off. There was obviously more than one there. So much for the relative peace of the morning…

I stayed with Suzan last night. BBC World Service called to interview her for the World Today programme. Again, someone was shooting from directly outside. This frustrates people very much as it draws Israeli fire into residential areas. We had to sit on the floor in the bedroom, with me reading fairytales to the girls, and we stayed there until the BBC called at 9.30pm. The shooting stopped and Suzan was interviewed successfully, however, for effect, it would have been better to have had the sound of gunfire and shelling in the background.

I woke to the sound of heavy rain, a cool breeze in the bedroom and distant gunfire. Suzan’s daughters went out to the shop to get some food for our breakfast. They brought back eggs, hotdogs, sweets and a bullet they found in the garden.

It is lunchtime now, and it has been, for the most part, quiet. CNN says that the Israelis will pull out tonight, providing there is a complete cessation in shooting. Yesterday, Fatah issued a release that said the Israeli withdrawal should be absolute and unconditional, and unless the forces are withdrawn from all reoccupied areas, then there will be no let up in the resistance.

Saturday 27th October
The effects of the reoccupation are really beginning to manifest themselves in quite disturbing ways. Since Wednesday, the children have a new game. Snipers. All the children are playing this. They all have a piece of wood, some with string as straps, some with pegs taped on for triggers, some with elaborate stands to mimic the larger guns. Fortunately, I have only been shot at once.

I was watching local TV yesterday when the withdrawal was meant to commence, and they had a crew out filming. I so wish that the Western media would make the effort. It was fascinating.

There was a building that had been taken over and was set up as a sniper point by the Israelis. To retrieve the soldiers who had been stationed there, the Israelis went through an elaborate procedure. Firstly, all Palestinian men in the vicinity were detained. They had their ID and mobile phones taken from them, and were held together, under armed guard. Then, a transport tank made its way to the building, leaving a trail of damage in its wake. The access door of the tank opened, and the door on the occupied building was wrenched off. (I think it was a lawyer’s office.) Then, the soldiers proceeded to load up the tank with their equipment.

This included: fire extinguishers, were they deployed with these or were they the property of the office, I wondered; large camouflage bags, which very obviously contained an array of assault weapons; then, one soldier held up some kind of body armour to obscure the view. Other items were then loaded in but it was impossible to see what they were. Finally, a massive roll of wire was hoisted on to the top of the tank. All the while, the soldiers kept trying to shoo away the film crew.

After the tank had withdrawn, the men who had been held were released.

Friday 26th October
I have had better nights. I keep on writing about “heavy fighting”, but this is the heaviest and closest to me so far. Wouldn’t it be nice to write about something different? Something positive for a change? Sadly, that is highly unlikely under the current circumstances. Everyone is desperately praying that the Israeli occupation forces leave, and leave quietly.

Today, a group of diplomats, including Geoffrey Adams, the British Consular General, visited Bethlehem. It was both as a mark of support for the Palestinians, as well as a visit to inspect the damage and speak to the people to find out what really has been happening. Beit Sahour’s Mayor was there to speak about the attacks here, and present an appeal to them, on behalf of the citizens in the area. They were all very shocked when they saw the extent of the damage and destruction, and heard of all the civilian deaths and casualties caused by this latest incursion.

I was at Rapprochement for a meeting earlier when there was a short but intensive round of gunfighting quite near, which lasted about 15 minutes. I went home via Suzan’s house. As I was leaving I had to run back up the stairs as shooting had started just as I was going out the door, and the Palestinian shooting was emanating from just past her house. I stayed for about 15 minutes and went to leave again. Salam, her seven-year-old daughter, came down the stairs with me and, just as I was going to open the door, the gunman fired a volley from directly in front of us. Poor Salam screamed and leapt into my arms, crying. I ran, surprisingly quickly considering I was carrying a child and my bag, and we sat on the bedroom floor at the back of the house. We stayed there for about 20 minutes until relative silence prevailed.

This time I did leave, but I walked home the long way to avoid the open area between Suzan’s house and mine. When I got home the fighting above my flat had increased considerably. My walls shook as one shell impacted and I was actually a little concerned, despite being in a relatively enclosed area.

The shooting has abated now but the Apaches are buzzing relentlessly overhead. I am not entirely convinced that they are just trying to terrorise us with their presence alone and they may go further and fire missiles tonight. Still, it is only 9.30 so anything could happen.

Thursday 25th October
Another day and more killings. Although it seemed quieter overnight, I just seem to be able to sleep through anything. There was some heavy fighting locally and before the end of today, three people were killed in Bethlehem. Of these, one was a civilian, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the fighting.

There is a rumour that Israel is going to pull out tonight. If this is true, I am sure they will not go quietly. There is shooting and shelling now, it is a little after 8pm, and I fear that they will attempt to cause as much destruction as possible as they leave. I inspected some damage earlier in the week. Despite the width of the roads the tanks will do one of two things; either drive along pavements or central reservations, causing damage to street lights and traffic lights, or drive down the side, destroying or damaging peoples cars.

I haven’t been to the hospital or the university but I have seen pictures. The university has been really badly damaged in some places. I also saw the Monastery where there is a bloody great big hole in the wall facing the military camp.

I did write to my Ambassador and Consular General today, demanding that the British government intervenes. I was very pleasantly surprised to receive a telephone call from Mr Geoffrey Adams, the British Consular General in Jerusalem. I confess that I already knew a little about him and that he has been supportive to Beit Sahour Municipality. In fact, he is making a visit to the Bethlehem area tomorrow, assuming of course the soldiers have moved their damned tanks out of the way. We had a brief chat about the situation, and he told me it was good to receive a letter from someone who does actually live here. He is passing my letter on to the Foreign Office in London. Perhaps it will end up in some dusty filing cabinet, but then again, perhaps not.

Wednesday 24th October
There was some limited but serious damage in Beit Sahour over night. Once again Mar Saba monastery was hit. There is a Greek woman living there and this is the second time her home has been wrecked. How she wasn’t injured, I do not know. Last time the repair bill was $58,000.

Today has seen some very, very heavy fighting in, predominantly, Bethlehem, but also the area in general. I was walking back from the Rapprochement Centre and passed by my office. Some of the guys from the shop opposite said “be careful, this street is dangerous. ” I replied “what, just this street?” and laughed. They then pointed at their van and I saw that the driver’s side window had been shot out. On the ground, outside my office door, were bullets! I walked a little quicker.

I got to Suzan’s house, a few minutes from the office, and she looked very shaken. There had been shooting between the houses and her two daughters were terrified; they were crying and very shaken. Suzan had been trying to call me at Rapprochement to tell me to get home immediately. Almost as soon as I had got in her house the shelling started. It was just up the road in Bethlehem. (Because of land expropriation the towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour have literally merged together. I actually live in Bethlehem. I am five minutes from Manger Square one way and five minutes from Beit Sahour Municipality the other.)

The pounding of shells was so heavy I thought it was our street being targeted at one point. I went onto the balcony and watched the sky light up in a series of flashes, interspersed with intense gunfire. Suzan said that if I was going to go home that I must go now. I went out the back way, which is slightly safer, and found the street almost deserted. Only one shop was open but it had it’s metal shutters across, only the door was accessible.

I walked home, which does involve crossing a major junction that is very exposed, listening to the shooting and hoping it wasn’t in my direction. One of my nearby neighbours called out “Aren’t you afraid to be out now? ” “Er…I am just stupid, I think,” was my rather lame reply. They laughed.

Back at home and it is very quiet now. Almost too quiet. One becomes so accustomed to the sound of war that, when it isn’t there, it is almost concerning. And believe me, it is war here. Watching CNN I see that Israel says they will withdraw when they have achieved their objective, and it will not be before Friday. What on earth is their objective, I wonder? Kill as many civilians and destroy as much infrastructure as possible? That is what is seems to be. The Paradise Hotel has been burning for much of the day and I saw smoke plumes from Aida refugee camp. The husband of Suzan’s childrens’ teacher was shot and killed today. He was driving home.

Two items on CNN that made an impression. Palestinians are calling, yet again, for observers on the ground. Think about it. Why would anyone ask for international intervention if it were guilty? Israel is the side that does not want anyone here, Sharon has repeatedly said so, in no uncertain terms. Isn’t that because he does not want the world to witness what Israel is really doing?

A US senator, unable to gain access to his office, gave an emotional plea for his goldfish. “They are dying, “he said. “They are starving.” Perhaps he would care to think of all the people around the world who are starving and dying, particularly in Afghanistan.

Tuesday 23rd October
I was going to write about today’s protest, the ‘Peace Convoy’ from Jerusalem, organised by 13 churches and the Islamic WAQF, but as I am writing Beit Sahour is being heavily shelled and there is gunfire in various areas. I was also going to write about the hospital that was shelled, home to approximately 50 orphans, and tell you how petrified they were, how they spent the night screaming, crying and being sick. (This was relayed to me from one of the nuns who looks after them.)

I got home much later than usual, I had been at the Rapprochement Centre writing press releases. There was some shooting as I walked up the road but since I got home it has got worse. I can also hear airplanes directly overhead, which I assume are F16′s.

Two shells were particularly close, the ground here shook. I called a friend to find out what was happening near her. She called me back to tell me that the Israelis are shelling an area a little below where I am living but no houses were hit. It was just the hillside.

The tanks that were in Bethlehem earlier had withdrawn, specifically because of the Peace Convoy protest – Israel recognises that shooting clergy is not good PR – but within a few hours they were back. A ferocious gunbattle erupted as Palestinian forces attempted to keep them out.

I can now hear helicopters, the planes seem to have gone. Earlier, as I was walking down to Rapprochement I saw two Apache’s fly over. They were very low and I was extremely concerned that there was going to be yet another assassination. The helicopters are getting closer to the centre. I am hoping that they are employing their usual tactics of scaring the wits out of people, rather than mounting a full-on assault.

Every few minutes the constant dull thud changes to the thwak thwak of the blades as the helicopter comes closer. I am taking my cue from those around me. I went outside to see if I could locate the helicopters but I can’t. There is a shop still open on the next road so I am either safe or he is stupid.

A friend just called and I have relaxed. Or perhaps I am just ‘normalising’ myself to the situation I am in. Really though, what is reported on the news is nothing compared to the reality. People, and I mean civilians, are killed here every day. The reality is horrible. At the weekend a woman aged 25, who was in labour, died of a heart attack. The ambulance she was in was stopped by Israeli troops and was refused access to the hospital. Two hours later she was dead. Never mind the 25 plus civilians killed by snipers, gunfire and shelling, including a 19 year old murdered outside the Church of the Nativity, which incidentally has been damaged by machine gun fire.

I hoped there may be some news on CNN, but all they are concerned about seems to be anthrax and Afghanistan. You have to see with your own eyes to believe what is happening. I cannot believe that Israel can portray itself as some poor victim of terror when the people who are really living in terror are the Palestinians. Too afraid to leave their homes, scared that the bullets whistling overhead will hit them, petrified that the helicopters will target their home next and blow it apart.

And so, as I prepare to go to bed, the shelling and shooting continues and the helicopters are still circling.

Monday 22nd October
I was in Jerusalem last night and had to travel back to Beit Sahour this morning. The taxi cannot now go through either the checkpoint or the little back road that bypasses the checkpoint. We had to drive through the fields. The Israeli army have also taken over civilian property and turned them into military outposts.

In this area alone there have been numerous killings of civilians over the last three days including: a 19-year-old shot by a sniper as he left his home near to the Nativity church; a 30-year-old woman in labour who was prevented from getting to the hospital died of a heart attack; a 24-year-old mother of two was shot twice by fire from an Apache helicopter; a disabled man was killed during a raid in Al Azza Refugee Camp. In addition, Beit Jala hospital was shelled and one patient killed and a doctor and another patient were seriously injured by gunfire.

Tonight I have watched the helicopters buzzing relentlessly and listened to sporadic but heavy exchanges of gunfire, some in Beit Sahour and some in Bethlehem.

Sunday 14th October
I have just been watching the latest news on CNN and was interested to hear that Israel is lifting blockades and restrictions in the West Bank. I was particularly interested as today, attempting to go to Tiqua, we were intercepted and escorted back to Jerusalem. Why was this? The reason given was the area between where we were and where we were going had, rather conveniently, been designated a closed military zone. A closed military zone ought to mean that no-one is allowed access but this is just an excuse to keep either Palestinians from their land, or international protesters from protesting. Settlers, of course, can go wherever they please, and with full protection from the IOF.

There were about 25 of us going to Tiqua, at the invitation of the villagers, to help protest the complete siege of their village. A road that runs through the centre of the village is being used by settlers, who are often armed, so the villagers are not allowed on or near this road. Nor are they allowed to travel freely anywhere else in the area. All local roads into the village have also been sealed, so they are in effect prisoners in their homes. Our intention was to block the passage of settlers by sitting in the road and closing it for an hour or so. An attempt to turn the tables, although of course we had no guns, which both the soldiers and the settlers do, courtesy of the Israeli government. Settlers are often more trigger-happy than soldiers.

We were a few miles from the village when we came to a heavily manned roadblock. We were told to pull to the side of the road, we were travelling in two vans, and after about ten minutes we were told we were not allowed in and that it is a closed military zone. During this exchange at least two cars, one lorry and a motorbike were allowed through. One solitary media car (ABC) drove past slowly, filming. We were obviously expected and the army had planned accordingly.

Our vans turned around and drove back to the main road where we stopped to discuss what the best course of action was. An APC that had overtaken us halted immediately, and behind us another six or seven military vehicles suddenly appeared. We were seriously outnumbered by the military, and if it wasn’t so damned frustrating it would have been hilarious. Really, over 30 heavily armed soldiers to stop 25 people who carry nothing more sinister than a passport not issued by Israel. How utterly ridiculous.

We all got out and started wandering about a bit; I was taking photos. If anyone attempted to stray we were told to get back in no uncertain terms. As I approached the vehicles behind us to take some pictures one of the soldier’s started shouting “lo po, lo po” (not here, not here) at me and made me go back toward the group. Another soldier was videoing us very carefully, making sure he got each face on film. I smiled brightly, waved and said hello when it was aimed in my direction.

We spoke to the commander and asked again why we weren’t allowed to travel along the road to Tiqua. “Closed military zone.” We were even shown a photocopy of a map with a swathe of yellow highlighter marking off the area of no entry. We asked how could we go around as we have an appointment in Tiqua. He wasn’t impressed. Realising that our position was futile, we got back in to the vans and had three APCs escort us all the way back to Jerusalem. I hope Americans, and others, appreciate how their taxes are being put to such good use.

Had there been international media present (we subsequently discovered that the media too had been intercepted and returned to Jerusalem) we probably would have attempted to walk though and see what happened. Some of us were prepared to be arrested, but really that is only worth doing if it can be caught on camera and be reported widely. The villagers were considering proceeding with their action despite us not being present, which concerned us considerably. The mayor had been in constant contact with us, following our progress (or lack of) and he told us the village was crawling with soldiers and border police. I imagine if we had got through the situation would have been quite volatile.

Despite this setback, we are not undaunted and all this does is make us more determined to help. Next time, and there will be a next time, we will get through and we will stand with the villagers of Tiqua to try to show the world the reality of Israel’s brutal and absolute control they exert over the Palestinians and their land.

Wednesday October 10th
As America and the UK continue to bomb Afghanistan, and manage to kill four Afghani UN mine clearers in the process, there has not been much reaction where I am, so far. There was a demonstration in Gaza, which led to the Palestinian police killing three people, increasing internal tensions considerably, but locally in Beit Sahour things have been quiet. If anything is going to happen it will be Friday, after noon prayers. There was a demonstration held outside the US embassy in Tel-Aviv, but a demonstration like that, ie. non-Arab, non-Muslim, attracts little attention.

So far, there has not been any indication of ‘danger’ by being here. There has been a new travel warning issued by the British Consulate to not travel to Gaza, the West Bank and the areas on the border with Lebanon, but that is standard when anything happens. One American friend who is here under the auspices of an American church, was evacuated from the West Bank on Monday, along with all other fellow American workers under the control of that church authority. He didn’t want to go but apparently had no choice. They are all back here today though.

Life in my new home is quite jolly, I joyfully discovered that my cooker works. What fun – I had roast potatoes on Sunday! The slight down side to this is that when I plug the cooker in the whole thing becomes electrified and each time I touch it I get mild electric shocks! Still, compared to the facilities in my previous flat this is a definite plus.

I now also have the benefit of a television, including satellite channels, which I haven’t had for eight months. I only get a few English speaking stations though, with the main one being CNN. CNN, it has to be said, is one of the most depressing news channels around. The backdrop has gone from WAR ON TERROR to AMERICA STRIKES BACK. This glitzy graphic glistens and pulses constantly and appears to impart a message of total American dominance and moral justification for all its actions, regardless. So, the US, and whoever chooses to tag on to its shirt-tales, is unquestionably the victim. How many millions have died thanks to Western international policy around the world?

(Electricity has just been cut) This happens almost daily and one is never quite sure whether it is innocent interruption or has a more sinister implication. It could potentially be the precursor to an Israeli attack on the area. There were quite a few flyovers earlier so that cannot be discounted. Don’t believe a word you hear from the Israeli government on your TV. They exert an absolute stranglehold over the occupied Territories and constantly use it for their gain. The airspace over the West Bank is a closed area so anything flying overhead can only be Israeli military.

Road travel here is a complete nightmare. Some journeys of only a few miles require one to change vehicles four times because of road closures, road blocks and sieges of villages. Tiqua, a small village near here is a prime example. One of the consequences of the strictly enforced closure of the village is that seriously ill people have been carried through the blockade to gain access to medical facilities. The school has also been subject to a military attack. So, as America leads the war against terror, Israel continues to silently wage terror against the Palestinians.

Monday 1st October
I have, at last, settled into my new home in Beit Sahour. Things have been fairly quiet over the last couple of weeks, or as quiet as things can be in the West Bank. There were killings of Palestinians by Israeli troops during the weekend, including a young man from one of the refugee camps nearby to Bethlehem. His funeral was on Saturday, I discovered, when I got a lift in to Bethlehem to find some of the roads closed off.

During the past week I have heard very sporadic shooting at night but certainly nothing like it was the last time I was here. Where I live is fairly central and surrounded by big houses, so if there is any shooting it shouldn’t be in my direction. It does seem rather odd though to talk of hearing shooting in the evening as if it where just an everyday occurrence. Sadly, the truth is here that it is exactly that.

The worst part of the terror and fear here is how children are affected. Schools are experiencing difficulties with students who are unable to concentrate, or have become totally distracted. I met a family recently where the youngest daughter was too frightened to walk in the road on her own. Their home is next to the Israeli military camp, and she had been shot at a few months ago when she was walking to school. In her young and scarred mind, walking to school equals the possibility of being shot at.

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