Bethlehem: The 'Last Action Heroes'

 A commentary by Israel Shamir The East celebrated Easter in May, a long time after the West this year. There was little festive spirit, as the Nativity Church of Bethlehem had been besieged for a month. Starved priests and laity lay in the grotto where the Virgin gave birth to Christ; bodies of policemen slain by Israeli sharpshooters were piled under the golden Tree of Jesse mosaic. From time to time, the attackers propelled flares to the wooden roof of the basilica and watched the defenders, weakened by a long fast putting the fires off. But Easter brought its miracle, and it was called ISM. What is ISM? For the reply, go a few hundred yards away from the church, on the broad terrace overlooking the gentle descent of the hills towards the Dead Sea, above the road's double bend; there is a small Byzantine sanctuary adjacent to a water cistern. It has an aquatic character like many shrines of the Holy Land and it is called Bir Daoud (David's Well), in memory of a legendary exploit. Once, the conquering army from the cities of the plain declared War on Terror and sealed this hilly village in an effort to catch a local man, a Palestinian terrorist leader by the name of Daoud, who had attacked the conquerors' settlements. But his companions, a motley band of men, challenged the invaders' order. They dared the road checks, defied security measures, sneaked into the village and, against enormous odds, brought a draught of water from the Bethlehem village well to Daoud, or King David as we call him now. Millennia have passed and this exploit is now repeated by the new version of King David's companions, the International Solidarity Movement, or ISM. As the land of Palestine has become the scene of the most dramatic confrontation and international involvement for decades, if not centuries, young European and American men and women have joined the ISM and come to the green hills of Bethlehem and Hebron. They have come in troublesome times: Israeli leaders carefully laid a plan to expel and exterminate Palestinians and create a country as Jewish as Germany was to be Aryan. The ISM volunteers by their very presence derail this plan and save local peasants from destruction and expulsion. They live dangerously: play the cat-and-mouse game with the Israeli army, dodge snipers' bullets, stay in defenceless villages with the peasants. Think of them as the Last Action Heroes, of Schwarzenegger's fame. Some of them have Jewish parents, but they have rejected separatist frameworks "for Jews only". They stand for equality, for the 'International of Good People', as Isaac Babel would say. They come from the land of Folke Bernadotte, and the land of Abe Lincoln, and the land of T E Lawrence. Some of the ISM volunteers saw action in non-violent anti-Globalisation protests in Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa. Others came to the Holy Land in April 2002, just in time for Israel's Easter Offensive, as Sharon's willing executioners demolished houses, uprooted olive trees, deported thousands of Palestinians into concentration camps, and slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children in Jenin refugee camp and Nablus. The oldest church in Christendom When Israel's Juggernaut rolled into Bethlehem in early April, over two hundred local people sought refuge in the church of the Nativity. The tradition of refuge precedes Christianity and is known to mankind from the dawn of civilisation. In Latin America persecuted people, illegal immigrants and labour leaders were often saved by hiding in churches, while during WWII many thousands of Jews found refuge in Christian churches and monasteries. That is why people believed they would be safe beyond the thick walls of the oldest church in Christendom. Forty monks and priests remained on duty in the church, together with 200 refugees. For a month, the Israelis did not allow food or water to be brought to the besieged. People starved and died, trying to survive on rainwater boiled with lemon leaves and grass. The stench of corpses and of infected wounds filled the old church. State-of-the-art cameras assisted sharpshooters who hung outside and shot at every moving figure. They killed monks and priests as well as refugees. And they did it with impunity. The Danish fairy tale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, wrote of the SnowQueen's magic mirror that distorts reality and changes beautiful things into ugly ones, and vice versa. In the magic mirror of CNN, this oldest church has become 'a place where some Christians believe Jesus was born'. The refugees are described as 'terrorists'. The monks and priests have become 'hostages' in the magic mirror of the Snow Queen. Cries of the besieged would not come through the Israeli-managed western media. In this dark hour, ISM rode in. As the Holy Land had prepared for Good Friday (majority of Palestinian Christians belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem), two dozen volunteers divided into two groups: one of them staged a diversion in the best tradition of Alistair McLean's 'Guns of Navarone'. While Israeli soldiers were taken aback by their foolhardy bravery and proceeded to capture them, the second group rushed forward, and entered the gates of the church. They brought with them food and water, something for the beleaguered refugees to look forward to on Easter Sunday. In the history books, their breakthrough will be called the Easter Rescue. The names of these daring men and women will be carved on the walls of the church. In the sacristy, next to the sword of Godfrey de Bouillon, the Defender of the Holy Sepulchre there will be the baseball hats and sneakers of the Defenders of Nativity, those who got into the church, to share hunger and danger of the siege: Alistair Hillman (UK), Allan Lindgaard (Denmark), Erik Algers (Sweden), Jacqueline Soohen (Canada) Kristen Schurr (USA), Larry Hales (USA), Mary Kelly (Ireland), Nauman Zaidi (USA), Stefan Coster (Sweden), and Robert O'Neill (USA), and those who sacrificed their freedom, created diversion and were jailed: Jeff Kingham (USA), Jo Harrison (UK), Johannes Wahlstrom (Sweden), James Hanna (USA), Kate Thomas (UK), Marcia Tubbs (UK), John Caruso (USA), Nathan Musselman (USA), Nathan Mauger (USA), Trevor Baumgartner (USA), Thomas Kootsoukos (USA), Ida Fasten (Sweden), Huwaida Arraf (USA). Civil disobedience The diversionary group was arrested for the dreadful crime of bringing food to the starving refugees in the church at Easter: At first, men were separated from women and taken to jail in an illegal Jewish settlement of Etzion. Women were sent to Jerusalem, and brought to court, where they were sentenced to be deported. While on the way to the jail transport, the English girls jumped off and escaped their guards. One of them was caught by an Israeli civilian, who did not hesitate to pull a knife on a girl. Another two are on the run, together with a Swedish girl named Ida. They showed what real civil disobedience is, how a non-violent and humanitarian action could make a difference even in the brutal circumstances of the Israeli occupation. Though they have committed no offence in the territory of Israel, these volunteers have been sentenced to be deported and forbidden to enter Israel for ten years. One hopes the apartheid 'state of Israel' will not last that long. As a professional journalist, I regret that this tense drama of siege, breakthrough, diversion, relief, salvation, arrest, escape and confrontation in the shadow of the great church, did not reach the mass audience of Europe and America, that it was not broadcast by all TV stations and reprinted by all newspapers. But the regret does not diminish my joy, as one of the kids who broke the siege was my own son. Israel Shamir is an Israeli journalist based in Jaffa.

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