Bethlehem diary

 Pax Christi sends this report from their partner, Toine van Teeffelen, a teacher at the Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem: Last night, 22-23 October, there is continuous shelling from Israeli helicopter gunboats above Beit Jala, as well as from an Israeli tank near the Aida refugee camp. The shelling is apparently two kilometres from here but it sounds as if it is very close to the house. The Israelis target areas in Beit Jala from which there is shooting towards some houses in the Jerusalem suburb/settlement Gilo. For sure, the people in Beit Jala must have stayed awake the whole night. Our three-year-old daughter, Jara, understands that the heavy 'retetetet' sound is because of Israeli shelling/shooting. The electricity and light fall out during the night, as happens more these days, and she is scared. We light a few candles. My mother-in-law calls to warn that Jara should not go to the kindergarten. The designer with whom I work, and who lives in Beit Jala, tells in the morning that his family felt as if 'they now went to Paradise.' Mary, my Palestinian wife, hears at her work at Bethlehem University that the house of a lecturer fried was destroyed. Mary says that it is very disturbing to imagine how afraid Palestinian children are, also among those families who live outside the shooting areas. Some families do not send their children to school, many classes are not complete. I regularly visit the Freres School in Bethlehem. The principal Fuad Giacaman is doing all what he can to keep the school running as if it is ordinary life. For instance, even when the Ministry of Education instruct that there should be no school, he keeps on preparing the highest class for the matriculation exam. They cannot afford to miss lessons, and conduct lessons to make up in the weekend. Last week, there was a horrific explosion next to the Freres School, in the Bethlehem compound of the Palestinian Authority, near Arafat's guest house. First people thought it was an Israeli shelling, later on Palestinian policemen visited schools in Bethlehem to say it was a gas explosion. The real story is still unknown. School students at the Freres flocked into the underground school auditorium. Such shocks of course keep people out of their ordinary rhythm of living. It shows itself in losing concentration at work, lack of sleep, headaches or pressure on the chest, loss of temper, people not attending meetings. I found that taking a day off, to read a novel, is the best cure to become quiet again. It is a challenge to keep on doing one's work, improvising a bit but not conceding your ordinary life altogether. The people in downtown Bethlehem are fortunate that they are outside the shooting areas. At least until now. Elsewhere the fear must be greater. If you live close to a settlement, or near an Israeli checkpoint, clashes may break out every day - even in Beit Sahour, to the east of Bethlehem (the location of the Biblical Shepherds Fields), which is close to several checkpoints. Some apartments in Beit Sahour have been shelled and destroyed. In the previous weeks there was so much shooting that during evenings families sometimes stayed lying on the ground. Students told at school how afraid they are. The same applies for the area around Rachel's Tomb at the entrance of Bethlehem, a holy site which is in the hands of the Israeli army, and which is continuously stoned. The owners of the nearby Paradise Hotel show visitors the very large bullet holes in the wall. Many youth are incredibly shocked by the violence. Some of them visit hospitals and write stories about what they hear from the injured for the Palestinian press. Many people in the tourist industry have lost work. Hotels and travel agents presently give people an unlimited, unpaid leave. Next to Rachel's Tomb, there is a new Intercontinental five star hotel, which is of course empty. A cousin of Mary works there, it was supposed to be top season, now she just answers the incoming phone calls of cancellations. When I visit my travel agent (I guide the Palestinian areas for Dutch groups), he says that he is considering going for a holiday in Geneva with his American girlfriend. There is no work any more. His main work during the last weeks was evacuating groups of tourists from Bethlehem hotels. He says that the Americans and the Germans left first, then the Dutch, Belgians and other Europeans. Only the Polish and Phillipine tourists never leave nor cancel. He thinks that they have a stubborn mentality. They pay, and after they pay, they want to come. Every night we watch al-Ru'a, the 'Shepherds Fields' local TV station. Local TV stations here are somewhat primitive, don't have much money and facilities. However, they bring people's voices. The whole evening one looks at a talking head in front of a telephone, accompanied by a guest who answers questions from viewers. During the day the local TV shows scenes of fighting, sometimes live. The subtitles show updates about the clashes, and the number of wounded and killed. In the evening programs the day's events are discussed. There may be a Moslem sheikh as guest, a Christian priest, or a political personality or military commander. In general the tone among the callers is that the point of no return has been reached and that there is no choice except to continue fighting. We hear also the question: Where are the Christians, where is the Vatican? There is a certain concern among local Christians that their involvement in the struggle is less than during the Intifada. Christian youth do not participate in I feel that there is a certain change in the definition of the political situation on the ground. In the past people considered clashes in the West Bank and Gaza as 'explosions' of frustration - as a result of continuing settlement building, blowing up of houses, cutting of olive trees, mobility restrictions, and so on. Now people tend to redefine the situation as one of a long-term struggle of liberation up until the occupation is ended. People calculate that while Palestinians suffer more, the fact that Israelis also suffer will ultimately lead them to end the occupation. The peace process is dead indeed. Yasser Arafat is much less on the screens of the local TV stations than before. It is now mainly Marwan Barghouti, from the Fatah 'tanzim' (armed youth), who shows himself to be an authoritative figure - although he regularly expresses his loyalty to Arafat. There is also an understandable yet dangerous element of resentment among people: 'Let them feel what we feel.' One leader of a youth NGO tells me that at my institute for community education in Bethlehem we talk about how to present the voice of Palestinian youth. The TV images of the uprising give a very limited picture of Palestinian youth. There should be more public and media involvement of youth who do not participate in the fighting. They should register and communicate stories they experience and hear. We are going to set up a youth group in which Palestinian youth from 15 years on reflect about what they can do. Especially girls are forced to stay inside after school, they cannot express their emotions outside the family. We talk about non-violent ways of protest, actions which do not carry the risk of being appropriated by one or another political faction. And what does that mean: community education under the present circumstances?

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