Bethlehem diary

 A personal account by Pax Christi partner Toine Van Teeffelen. Toine works with the Arab Educational Institute 23-31 October Once again Beit Jala has been bombed, in the night from Friday to Saturday. The bombing was accompanied by shooting sprees across the area. Mary, Jara and I slept deeply but most of Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour were terrified. Next morning, students from Beit Jala arrived at the Freres School with pale faces. They told stories of bullets breaking into living rooms or flying overhead, and a rocket that went straight through a three-storey house ending up in the kitchen. Miraculously, no one was killed. In Beit Jala, there is now little ordinary life. A student told me he studies under his bed. One boy is said to refuse to take off his clothes and shoes when going to sleep, as he does not want to lose time in case he needs to run away. The local TV mentions that at the beginning of last week, a girl wanted to return to her family house after it was bombed. When asked why, she said that she wanted to rescue her dolls. It is not clear how long the bombing raids will continue. People expect that they will be a weekly phenomena. After Israeli warnings, the Palestinian Authority asked some families in houses not far from Rachel's Tomb to leave, but the inhabitants refused. How can the city cope with all this? In front of a TV camera, Bethlehem's municipal secretary wonders how prepared Bethlehem and the adjacent towns really are when coping with an emergency situation like this. It is not just the bombing but the loss of jobs of those who cannot go to Jerusalem and Israel, or - in case they are able to sneak along checkpoints - who found out that their jobs were taken over by other, usually foreign workers. Under the circumstances it is no surprise that families leave. Bishop Sabbah, who last week visited Christian and Moslem sites that were bombed, spoke about the pain he saw on people's faces. He advises the local Christians not to leave. Despite the difficulties, he said: "Their place is here." The question of staying and leaving keeps everybody busy. A Dutch couple working voluntarily at the Freres School as drama and music teachers seriously consider to leave. They would like to stay but the woman is pregnant and understandably worried about the influence of the tensions upon her child. Daily life goes on. During an evening, Mary asks me to bring nappies for Jara. Shooting starts but soon subsides. I'll go out but there is again shooting, a few hundred metres further down near Paradise Hotel (now renamed by some as 'Hell Hotel'). I'll quickly go to my parents-in-law. When I proudly return with the nappies, Mary is not impressed. With an inviting gesture - "Come my hero" - she sets me cleaning the dishes. Other concerns keep her more busy. Her father is now a few days in hospital. He is 82 years old but still works in his garage opposite Rachel's Tomb, selling car accessories. After the closure of Jerusalem in the beginning of the 1990s, he lost many of his customers. Nowadays his work serves as much to keep him in a daily routine as to get a little income. His close friends opposite his shop, a family from Beit Jala, left last week. Recently, he was forced to stay at home - Rachel's Tomb. Work at the Arab Educational Institute in Bethlehem also moves on, though haltingly. One of the projects involves an exchange between three Dutch schools and three Bethlehem schools. The 16-17 year old students write each other stories about "social violence". No lack of such stories now. But the problem is to bring the students to the institute, where they can use the Internet. For three weeks now, Suzy Atallah tries to bring her St Joseph students to the Institute. It has to be done on their free weekend day, the Friday. During the week students have to do their homework and cannot come back late in the afternoon. Certainly now, parents want them to be at home before dark. But each new Friday another incident happens which keep the students from the street. This Friday, finally, it seems that they are able to come. Together with Karishma Budhdev, a Kenyan of Indian origin who works on various projects of the Institute, we prepare the lesson. But the email and Internet is down. The girls are waiting outside the class room. We pray. After a few attempts, there is still no connection. The girls again have come for nothing. The next class, scheduled an hour later, is cancelled but some girls, living in the villages, cannot be informed in time. They had to leave early from home. Travelling from nearby villages to Bethlehem can now take more than one and a half hour. The students have to circumvent checkpoints within the West Bank itself. Fortunately, these girls at least did not come for nothing. After a while, another telephone number happened to work. At last, a semblance of normal study. While supervising, Suzy gives me a letter written by one of her students: To Whom It May Concern "I think that we have reached a time in which God, the creator of this world, is looking at us and crying. If we see the world from outside, we realise that it is burning. I am a Palestinian and I'm not talking for myself. I am talking for every other Palestinian person, man, woman, boy and girl. What we are dealing with is not new: we stayed fifty-two years under the occupation waiting for peace. We don't want anything impossible. We just want to live peacefully like any other human being in this world. If we are dealing with human beings, things would have changed earlier. But it is as if we are not dealing with human beings. It is as if they don't have feelings, it is as if they want us all to be dead. I really don't want you to feel sorry for us, we don't want tears, we want actions. Help our helpless people. We cried enough and we suffered enough. "Israel is killing hundreds of children and young teenagers with all the weapons it has, and Palestinians are defending. When Mohammed Al-Dura was killed, he shook everyone's feelings not because he was a child - many other children were killed. It was the way how he was killed, the way he was screaming, trying to hide his body from the bullets behind his father's weak arm. What damage would he have done if he had stayed alive? What were they thinking when they killed him? We cried and cried with his family and I feel now that I am the sister of all these children, these innocent angels. They should have lived the best life, having a perfect education, live like any other children in this world, play, laugh and enjoy. But where are they now, under the ground, dead. And 'we have to stop the violence'! "I believe that even though we are alone, God is always with us. So I ask everyone to wake up, realise what is really happening, according to their conscience, their faith. "At last. I want you to know the truth, the real case of Palestine. Be sure that we Christians and Moslems are one forever." Mary Mohammed al-Dura Palestine 25 October 2000

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