Eyewitness report from Bethlehem

 We walked into Bethlehem wide-eyed and anxious, like new-born deer making our first steps away from our mothers. I was accompanied by a gaggle of Danish journalists and an American human rights worker, called Eve. With us was a Palestinian guide, Michele, a calm 32-year-old woman fluent in English, French and Hebrew. It was 10.30am and the streets were deserted and quiet, apart from the occasional rattle of gunfire and a few distant explosions coming from the town centre. The curfew was due to be lifted for a few hours in half an hour, something that happens every three days under Israeli control. But for now, the snipers hiding in the buildings around us held sway. As foreigners, we were fairly safe, although of course we were nervous. But no Palestinian dared move. The Israeli gun was the only law round here and enough people had been shot in the past few weeks for the locals to know that justice was swift and ruthless. The peace was shattered by five tanks which roared past in a cloud of dust and diesel smoke. One parked near us and as the Danes took pictures, it swung its gun turret round to face us. A voice bellowed out in Hebrew. 'They are warning you not to take pictures,' Michele said. As the clock struck the hour, the streets filled with people anxious to stock up on food. They swarmed down Bethlehem`s narrow alleys, out of the shattered buildings and cars crushed by tanks and spattered with bullet holes. We made our way to the house of Fr Mitri Raheb, of the Christmas Lutheran Church of Bethlehem. 'The past few weeks have been the most terrible in my life,' he told us. 'Last Tuesday at 6.30am two tanks stopped outside my house and shelled the city centre. It lasted for 13 hours. We were surrounded. We thought that day we would die, but at least it has taught us to live each day as if it were our last. 'Two days later, three Israeli units stormed my church compound. They didn't ring the bell. By chance I heard them smashing down the doors. I asked them to stop and they told me they wanted to get to my neighbour's house. I told them the road to my neighbours was not through my compound. 'A little later a second unit appeared and they were more violent. They broke into my office and smashed it up. It was pure vandalism, I think. I told them, as Israeli gentlemen they could have asked me for the keys. I have nothing to hide They were the worst racists I have ever come across. They pointed their guns at me and made fun of me. They said: 'You Palestinians have beautiful buildings' as if we didn't deserve them. I argued with them, trying to find some humanity in them. One laughed at me saying I was a very wise man. I told him, a wise man is one who tries to make a neighbour out of an enemy, not an enemy out of a neighbour. At this point their commander got angry and told me to shut up, forbidding his soldiers to speak to me anymore. They arrested me and held me for three hours. Outside Fr Mitri's window we hear gunshots. He doesn't react - he is used to it now. 'I worry for the children,' he tells us. 'They will grow up to be disturbed. Most will be more violent and a few will turn into extremists. They need healing. I run an art therapy course for them, but the Israeli soldiers have destroyed the centre. I don't know why - I think they were doing it for fun. Ariel Sharon has planted the seeds of violence and extremism in our city. He has murdered hope and that is the most dangerous of crimes.' We said goodbye and made our way to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity where scores of Palestinains are seeking sanctuary. We pass a bakery where no bread has been made for weeks - there is no flour available, the owner tells us. We meet a doctor outside his surgery. He ushers us in to show us the destruction the soldiers have wrought. All his equipment lies shattered, his computer smashed and his practising certificate lies in the rubble. He cries out to us: 'Why did they do this? What have I done?' Manger Square is blocked off and we watch as troops string out barbed wired to keep prying eyes away from the besieged church. Again, they shout at us for taking pictures, but we ignore them. We are ready to go now, but our guide Michele is taking to a distressed woman. She wants our help, Michele says. She points to a house near the square outside which an Israeli soldier is stationed. The woman's sister lives there and her husband is diabetic, Michele explains. Even though the curfew has been lifted for a few hours here in Bethlehem, he is not allowed out because he lives near the church. He hasn't eaten for three days or had his medicine. I too am a diabetic and I know that the man will now be critically ill. Michele wants to help. She approaches the soldier who shouts at her to get away. But she is calm and quietly persists. She and one of the Danish journalists goes inside to help the man out. A few minutes later, the man, Issa Hassboun, appears. Almost comatose, he is supported by the Michele and the Dane. He can't walk or speak and his breathing is shallow. As he is helped out, the soldier runs over. He is furious and shouts at us. 'What is this, what is this? What are you doing, I will smash your cameras,' he screams. He swears and abuses us. The Danes tell him they have permission to work from the Israeli Defence Forces. He is unmoved and continues to shout. I walk away quietly and the others follow. Outside, on the street, we lay Issa down. I have my diabetic kit to hand and test his blood in the street while we wait for an ambulance. His blood sugar is high. I say to Eve that I hope the hospital has insulin for him. Without it he will die. But we have been told medical centres have run out of vital supplies. There is nothing more we can do, except wonder: how does smashing up an art therapy centre for children, or a doctors surgery or imprisoning people, including diabetics, protect Israelis from suicide bombers? How does starving people, cutting off their water, shouting at them, humiliating them and smashing down priests' doors guarantee security? I cannot answer. But I am surprised that anyone here laughs at all and that Palestinians of Bethlehem are not more angry. 'We must laugh,' says Michele. 'Otherwise we would lose our minds.'

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