Friday, August 25, 2006

Beit Jala: From Free Fire Zone to Prison (2)

Before I learned about his dad, I had noticed that this kid was among the fastest on the field, sometimes tripping up kids twice his age! That's my "host brother," Issa, on the ground!

[ABOVE] This home was abandoned due to the Israeli shelling, and now is totally destroyed. Hundreds of homes in Beit Jalla were damaged between 2000-2002.


Beit Jalla is a village of Christian Palestinians - as an ignorant American I was surprised when I learned this a few years ago... there are thousands of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli military occupation. There are also Christian refugees, "cleansed" from towns and neighborhoods that were swallowed by Israel in 1948. So...Not all Arabs are Muslim. Wow. There are also a smaller number of Muslim families living in Beit Jalla side by side. People here say there is no fighting between Christians and Muslims, though there are sometimes some prejudices and tensions (I've witnessed this from the Christian side - against the Muslims - but I haven't seen Muslim prejudice against Christians). And what about Arab Jews? And Palestinian Jews???? That's another story... -

In 2000 and 2001, Palestinian resistance groups would use areas of Beit Jalla to shoot into the neighboring Israeli settlement of Gilo, or at the Israeli checkpoint on the settler highway below the hill. They used rifles (and allegedly also mortars), and the distance is over a kilometer so the shells rarely caused injury. However, at least one Israeli was killed by this gunfire over the couple of years this was happening. As criminal as it is to fire at civilians in Gilo (even if they are illegal settlers, they are still civilians), the Israeli military response, was, of course, typicaly disproportionate (as in Lebanon), and so massive that it has been described as a war crime by human rights organizations. You can read all about it on Btselem's remarkable website.

Following the shelling, Israeli troops occupied Beit Jalla and placed it under curfew for many months in 2002. Curfew means no one can leave their homes, sometimes for weeks on end - with maybe a 4 hour break every few days. It really is collective punishment, putting a whole population in prison. Such measures expose the reality that Israel is not trying to merely defend itself through such operations - they are trying to punishing the whole population. Why? For wanting freedom from occupation. Between reading Btselem reports and talking to people about their experiences in prison, under curfew, at checkpoints, etc., the disdain Israel shows for the lives Palestinians and Arabs in general is crystal clear.

Today, Beit Jalla is no longer under regular military attack, and the gunfire from Palestinians has stopped. However, it is now enclosed, along with neighborhing Bethlehem, behind the "Apartheid Wall." The economy is shattered. Many people worked in Jerusalem, but now hardly anyone has permission to do so. The calm situation allows life to go on in the Gilo settlement. Young men have told me "No one is thinking of attacking Israel now. People are only thinking of how to eat."

Testimony given to BtSelem: (CLICK FOR FULL REPORT)

Fatma 'Ali Hamed Zawareh, described how her daughter was wounded on May 6th, 2001:

Around 7:15 A.M., three of my children left the house for school, which lies on the main road leading to Bethlehem. The three who went were Rawan, who is twelve, Tareq, who is nine, and Mahfuz, who is eight. I have two other children: Rana, who is four, and eighteen-month-old Raniyeh.

About 7:30, I heard the sound of gunfire, and fifteen minutes later shells began to fall near the houses. Around 10:30, when I was hiding with my two small children in an interior room of the house, I saw through the window my three eldest children arriving home from school and hiding behind a wall on a field about twenty meters from the house. They were crying and frightened. The shelling was still going on and they couldn't reach the house. I decided to go and get them and I managed to get to them. I took Tareq with my right hand and Mahfuz with my left hand, and Rawan walked in front of me. Suddenly we heard the shriek of a shell. It exploded on the dirt road, about a hundred meters from us, and Rawan cried out. I saw that she had been wounded above the right eye. Blood was flowing from the wound. I picked her up and shouted for help. Tareq and Mahfuz cried and screamed. A few minutes later, National Security personnel arrived and took Rawan to the ambulance that was on the main road, at the entrance to the neighborhood. It took her to the government hospital in Beit Jala. The physicians in the emergency room stopped the bleeding... Now she is taking medication to stop the internal bleeding in her right eye.

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