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Under Fire in Bethlehem
3 April 2002
I was unlucky to be in Bethlehem when history was being made. Anyone coming fresh to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories must feel bewildered by competing versions of events. It is useful to have facts. This is one: on Monday, live ammunition was used against international protesters for the first time by Israel's armed forces.
I was climbing to the summit of Beit Jala, a small Christian Arab town stretched across two hillsides, overlooking Bethlehem. The illegal settlement of Gilo is visible everywhere here. Because of its position, Beit Jala was the favored route when Israeli forces invaded Bethlehem last month. No house in the town is without its bullet holes or shell holes.
The reason I was climbing Beit Jala, among 150 foreign protesters, is that Israeli tanks had taken up position there again, signaling their imminent invasion. Our non-violent action was intended to show that Bethlehem was filled with peaceful foreign nationals. A second aim was to visit families cut off by the Israeli advance.
When we reached the first of two Israeli armored personnel vehicles, we stopped and our negotiators stepped forward. Both are British nationals: the writer Lilian Pizzichini and a Glaswegian technology consultant named Kunle Ibidun. They were unable to state our intentions because the soldier in the vehicle's turret opened fire with his rifle.
His shots were aimed in front of us. They could be called warning shots. But the bullets fractured on impact and his first five bullets injured four people: Kunle himself, a young Japanese woman from Bradford, an Australian woman from Hebden Bridge and Chris Dunham, a Londoner. As we backed down the hill, an elderly Englishman received shrapnel fragments in his face and an American was wounded in the leg. As I write, the Australian is still in hospital and the Japanese woman is returning home for treatment.
I came to Bethlehem to accompany my wife as she made a documentary about the West Bank-based International Solidarity Movement. The ISM has become well known in recent days, after the Canadian Jewish activist Neta Golan and others succeeded in entering Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah. But its purpose is to support nonviolent direct action in the occupied territories. Palestinians face extreme violence when they demonstrate. It comes not just from Israeli soldiers, who are fairly disciplined and can be expected to operate under direct orders (the soldier who fired at us appeared to be listening to instructions on his radio headset). There are also the notoriously violent Israeli Border Police and the settlers' movement. This is why internationals are needed: to increase the chances of successful nonviolent actions and lessen the risk of violence against the Palestinians.
It would be preferable if the Palestinians could pursue nonviolent direct action. In whose interest is an increase in violence? I write this, listening to the Israeli tanks shelling the Deheisha refugee camp 400m away, watching news reports of the burning mosque in Manger Square and an attack on a local priest. I am unable to leave the house. My fellow protesters are split between two refugee camps and a local hotel. The hotel has had its power cut off: presumably an attempt to drive away the foreign media, who are also there. The press and TV are banned from Ramallah and my wife's cameraman and a BBC crew received the worst of the live fire in yesterday's demonstration (although none, fortunately, was wounded). The overwhelming impression is that the Israeli army wishes to behave in any way it chooses, unseen by outsiders.
I was in Bethlehem once before when history was being made: Christmas 1995, when Yasser Arafat gave a speech from the roof of the Nativity Church in Manger Square. The agreement he had signed with Yitzhak Rabin was then termed the "peace of the brave". At that time, Ariel Sharon was already on record as saying he would rip up this agreement.
The Palestinians long ago recognized Israel's right to exist within the international borders it had in 1949. The Likud party, now led by Sharon, has never made a reciprocal statement. The Palestinians believe Sharon will do everything in his power to make sure that the door is left open for an Israel that stretches to the Jordan River. I now believe this, too. Members of his coalition argue openly for the forcible expulsion of the Palestinians. Perhaps the first candidate will be Arafat himself.