Magazine article The Spectator

Bombs over Bethlehem

Magazine article The Spectator

Bombs over Bethlehem

Article excerpt

THERE is seasonal warmth in Bethlehem, and a survivalist sense of humour. The Good Shepherd Store keeper is thrilled to have a Westerner in for some Christmas shopping. The more you load into his plastic bags, the happier he becomes. Times are hard: since the `closures' began, unemployment has jumped from 8 per cent to 40 per cent, and millions of tourist dollars have been lost.

The closures are part of Israel's response to the Palestinian uprising against the occupation. The response has been two-fold: meeting individual demonstrators with live bullets as well as the rubber-coated metal variety, and meting out mass punishment to the Palestinian population. This means blockading their cities, towns and villages, restricting all movement, and strangling the local economies.

Nabeel Kassis, the minister responsible for the Bethlehem 2000 Project, sits in his office, the millennial clock ticking, and fielding questions from journalists about the cancellation of Christmas. When I say I am lucky because I have had no trouble at the checkpoint on the way into Bethlehem, he is angry. `Lucky? You're not lucky. It is a basic human right to be able to move around - freedom of movement is not dependent on luck. We Palestinians, all of us, have to carry permits that "allow" us to move around, out of our homes, out of the places where we live, into our place of work.'

Bethlehem is largely Christian, but there are cramped refugee settlements in the middle of the town full of Muslim families who fled their villages in 1948 and 1967. Omar is the head of one such family. Yes, he has the keys to his house in Beit Jibril (now in Israel), and the deeds, given to him by his grandfather, who got them from the Turks when the Ottomans held sway here.

`How do you explain to your children?' Omar asks quietly. `What do I say to them when they ask me why the Israelis try to kill them? There is nothing I can say,' he says, showing me the room where the apartment-block's 16 children sleep these days. It is small, and bare of furniture -- just rolls of bedding piled neatly in one corner. The building was shelled recently following Palestinian provocation at Rachel's Tomb: two missiles struck in the dead of night, showering Omar's children and his aged parents with glass, sending four of his family to hospital. …

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