Unconditional Surrender

Gideon Levy

On Sunday, Bethlehem was the only armored city in the world

 
HA'ARETZ
15 March 2002

Yasser Arafat Street in Bethlehem this week: Tanks and an abandoned armchair.
(Photo: Miki Krats)
 

   This is how the city that was (re) occupied by the IDF looks:
The main streets are deserted and strewn with wreckage. Mighty tanks sit at all the intersections. All doors, windows and gates are shuttered. The streets are scarred by the treads of the tanks. Cars that were struck by the tanks are left smashed by the side of the road. Telephone booths, electric poles and traffic islands - all destroyed. Stones, bricks, household objects, burnt tires, rusted boilers and old electric appliances lie in the road, perhaps the remnants of some feeble resistance effort. The large administration building has been reduced to a pile of rubble. Tanks and huge mounds of earth block the access roads from the city to the refugee camps on its outskirts, while the occupying army goes from house to house in the camps, sowing more fear and destruction. 

The ruins of the PA administration building.
 

The deathly silence that has descended on the city is broken intermittently by exchanges of gunfire. Every so often, a bigger boom rattles the area. Groups of young men or kids who are normally fearless peek out from the alleyways; they look stricken by what has happened to their city. A young couple sneak a look out their front door, to check whether the tanks have gone, and then disappear back inside at the sight of them. 

This is what Bethlehem, city of the Nativity, looked like this week. There is no city in the world today, with the possible exception of Grozny, that has been taken over by tanks that move through its streets like garbage trucks or buses; no other traffic is to be seen. On Sunday, Bethlehem was the only armored city in the world. This was the day after the army pulled out of Tul Karm and the eve of its occupation of Qalqilyah and Ramallah, which were to share the same fate. In neighboring Jerusalem, the literati were complaining that after "the war for the croissant," the capital, also a badly battered city, has become a "take-away" town. Meanwhile, 10 minutes away in Bethlehem, no one could even begin to dream about a croissant, take-away or otherwise. The only things being delivered in the city were the battle rations brought by armored military ambulance to the tanks, or the bodies of dead Palestinians. 

In the Deheisheh refugee camp, they were praying for the water supply to the houses to be turned back on. We toured the streets of occupied Bethlehem. When the city came under occupation in 1967, white flags filled the balconies. This time, there was no need for them. The city surrendered unconditionally and without any symbols of surrender. The sight was reminiscent of Sarajevo in 1993: That's the only other place I have ever seen such utterly desolate streets. 
 
  A changing of the flags:
This week, they were busy taking down the old national flag that flew over the Bethlehem checkpoint. It had become faded and worn and was being replaced with a new one, whose blue lines showed up much better. Meanwhile, the Border Police officers were busy sweeping the area in front of the checkpoint and picking up all the empty bottles that had piled up alongside it. Were they sprucing things up in anticipation of a visit from some higher-up, as they usually do in the IDF? Or was their activity just a way to while away the time? Hardly anyone was approaching this checkpoint at the edge of the occupied and besieged city. The officer took out a folded flag, unfurled it and carefully hooked it to the mast that rises above the inspection station. I had never seen soldiers so diligently attending to the appearance and cleanliness of a checkpoint. 

But the men were powerless to cover up the great stench that rose from the valley below and surrounded the place, a stench that may have come from a garbage dump or from decomposing carcasses. This used to be a bustling crossing point for tens of thousands of laborers making their way to and from work in Israel. Now it is totally empty. Two buses full of pilgrims from Florida who showed up on their way to the Church of the Nativity seemed like a sudden hallucinatory apparition. The Church of the Nativity? Now? But they weren't really all that different from a small group of Haredim and settlers who arrived at the checkpoint so they could proceed in an armored bus to Rachel's Tomb, to pray there, of all places, while totally ignoring everything going on around them. As the Christian pilgrims made their way to the church, one Palestinian opened up his shuttered souvenir store - hoping, in a desperate attempt at survival, to sell the Florida pilgrims souvenirs from the occupied city in the Holy Land. 

An elderly Israeli electrician, who was installing a new light at the checkpoint, told his assistant, "We went through Pharaoh. We went through Hitler. We'll get through this, too," as if trying to comfort him. Another soldier tried to load cartons of cottage cheese and chocolate milk onto a military ambulance, and they spilled all over the place. Apparently, the IDF is also finding different uses for its ambulances. 

A few minutes' drive away, on Mount Gilo, is an observation point overlooking the occupied city. Tomorrow, the commander of this war, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, will come here and look out into the distance. Will he see inside the besieged houses? Will he even think about what his soldiers are doing to their frightened residents? Will he give a thought to the thousands of arrested men, who have been humiliated, handcuffed, blindfolded and paraded through the streets of Deheisheh spread out below? 

The sign at the entrance to the Everest Garden Hotel at the top of the mountain still tries to lure in guests in Hebrew: "Pizza, Hamburgers, Hot Dogs, Game Room" - a remnant of another time. Now an IDF jeep sits at the entrance to the parking lot and the armed soldiers check everyone who enters. A family approaching on foot from the direction of nearby Beit Jala passes through without any problems. They have come with their suitcases to escape from their home in the occupied Doha neighborhood. The father of the family, a talkative contractor with four cell phones attached to his belt and one in his hand, is angry at Yitzhak Rabin: "The worst is that Rabin of yours who brought that trash here from Tunis. Now the trash from Tunis is going to kick it into reverse and get out of here." The man's business hasn't been doing much lately. The jeep gets a call over the radio and speeds away. 

A school in Beit Jala is shuttered and deserted. There is no one in the streets of this town, from which gunfire is directed at Gilo from time to time. A light green bus belonging to the Etzion Bloc Development Company passes by on the street below. A convoy of five jeeps guards the group of settlers. Traffic on the Tunnel Road is still very busy, with settlers and soldiers traveling back and forth, in stark and infuriating contrast to the empty roads here. 

Tanks are stationed in front of the antiquities store at the intersection of the road that leads to Bethlehem. "Have you got a newspaper?" one soldier at the checkpoint asks. Tanks are also parked at the deserted gas station at the entrance to the city. Reservists are busy repairing them. It's like a workshop. You hardly see any more soldiers on the streets of the occupied city: They stay inside their armored vehicles. 

The road is scarred from the tank treads. Nothing stands in the way of an IDF tank: not a telephone booth or a fence or an electric pole, not even an ambulance or a parked car. Everything is flattened. "A thousand salutes to our heroes who are in Israeli prisons," reads the graffiti on what little remains of the Palestinian checkpoint - now no more than a tin hut that appears to have recently been painted white. When did they paint it? And when did they abandon it? And when will a Palestinian soldier return here? The heroes in Israeli prisons have just been joined by a thousand new detainees, men of Deheisheh, who are being arrested wholesale. Terrorists and students, fighters and dreamers, suicidal men and others who thirst for life, educated people and enraged people - all in a long and humiliating procession under the shadow of Israeli rifles. When will they return home? And what will they take with them from their false arrest? 
 
  Images of Sarajevo:
The streets are empty, the roads strewn with rocks, the houses destroyed, there is an undeclared curfew, and shortages, desolation, horror. 

And these are memories of Deheisheh: On one especially cold winter day in the mid-1980s, we came here with Israeli high-school students who wanted to meet their contemporaries, the children of refugees, and to talk with them. And we came here in the mid-1990s during the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, and saw so much hope. Veteran fighter Abu Khaled, marble merchant Ibrahim Taqatqa, communist Fuad Rizaq, contractor Daoud al-Zir and mythological hero Salah Ta'amri vied for the 12,000 votes of the descendants of Zakariya, `Ajour and another 45 villages that were wiped off the face of the earth in 1948, and whose children and grandchildren were condemned to live in this miserable refugee camp. 

In 1998, we came to Deheisheh to see the demonstrations in support of Saddam and against Netanyahu; in 2000, we met a boy named Rami Ma'ali here - a young soft drink peddler whose hand was broken for no reason by a reserve soldier at the checkpoint at the entrance to the city. In Deheisheh, we met the masked stone-throwers and their successors, the armed-to-the-teeth Tanzim fighters who shoot at Gilo. Of the five we once met, only two are still alive, as far as we know. The most recent visit: The Feast of the Sacrifice, 2001. The place: the home of the poorest family in the refugee camp. The widow Halima Samaha and her six children: one is in jail in Israel, a girl who was sold for next to nothing to be the wife of an old Israeli Bedouin, and the rest crowded together with their mother in the most impoverished home I have ever seen in the territories, malnourished and living in horrible conditions. Her teenage son Faris told me then about his friend who went to throw stones at Rachel's Tomb in the hope of getting himself killed so his family could receive a martyr's pension from the Palestinian Authority. 

"We're afraid that they'll attack us and shell us from the direction of Efrat. There's a tank there already. The soldiers need to know that we're not cattle. That we want to live, that's all. The soldiers need to know that we are fighting them generation after generation, and if we are killed, the next generation will fight to the death. What else is there to do? This is our life. This is how we have been fated to live," the boy said then. His mother, Halima, smiled shyly: The children haven't eaten today. They've only had tea. This was in the afternoon. 

Now, behind this steep dirt barrier that the IDF put up at the end of the road in order to prevent anyone from entering the camp, and especially from leaving, the Samaha family's situation is harder than ever. 

A new refugee, Dr. Saber Tamas, a dentist from Bethlehem wearing a leather jacket, stands at the checkpoint at the entrance to the city, shades his eyes with his hand and peers into the distance, looking to see if any car is approaching. The dentist's house is next door to the administration building that was totally destroyed. The house was also damaged in the shelling. "On Monday, the Apache bombed the administration building. We were at home. On Tuesday, the young men went to shoot at Gilo. Then we knew that the F-16s would be coming. We left the house an hour before the bombing. On Wednesday morning, after the bombing, we saw that all the windows were shattered and that all the doors had come off their hinges. The iron gate was twisted from the force of the blast, too. The television had fallen off the table onto the floor and the bookcase had also fallen." Temporarily homeless, the doctor tried to get back into his house to retrieve whatever he could, but the soldiers barred him. Now his wife is supposed to be arriving with a suitcase containing documents and valuables. He is afraid that the soldiers will panic at the sight of the suitcase. 

Two Israeli gas trucks that sought to enter the city are turned back by the soldiers. Who needs gas now in this city, anyway? A man from East Jerusalem arrives at the checkpoint in a taxi. He got a call from relatives in the Al-'Aza refugee camp who told him that his wife's 12-year-old nephew, Salah Abu Tarbush, had been seriously injured in the head. Now the uncle will wait here. Maybe an ambulance carrying the boy will pass by. 

"Can you get to Rachel's Tomb from here?" asks a Jewish man with an American accent. "Yes, yes," replies the military electrician, who still hasn't finished installing the light. Soon the armored bus and jeep escort will arrive and the prayer of this man will rise heavenward from Rachel's Tomb. 

Yasser Arafat Street is the main street of Bethlehem. Now Israeli tanks stand all along it. Another fleeting sign of hope - the city's first traffic light, installed when the PA took over the city - has been snuffed out. The new Intercontinental Hotel, which opened in a specially converted stone mansion just before the outbreak of the intifada, is all closed up, another silent monument to what was and what could have been. Someone has tossed a terra cotta-colored armchair into the street. It stands there empty amid the rubble. The administration building is totally destroyed. The two small palm trees that stood at the entrance are also covered with debris. No one is around. The place has been abandoned. All that is visible are the piles of debris and rusted bars that once held in the Palestinian prisoners. Practically all of the surrounding houses were damaged by the shelling. Just one house appears to be completely intact, without so much as a cracked window. This is the local headquarters of preventive security chief Jibril Rajoub. 
 
  On the radio:
"Chief of Staff Mofaz rejects the idea of occupying all the PA territories." A convoy of 10 tanks slowly makes its way up from Modi'in to Jerusalem. The turret of the tank on Yasser Arafat Street swivels around in our direction. A steel helmet pokes up from the turret and, with a wordless gesture, the soldier orders us to move away. Young Mahmoud Fawzi Sajda, who was wounded by a tank shell today, now lies in the intensive care unit of Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. He is 14 and all alone. No one is at his bedside. It's impossible to reach his family because the phone lines have been cut off and it's impossible to get out of the camps anyway. 

"It would be better if he doesn't live," says his doctor. The boy lies there unconscious and on a respirator, his hand has been amputated and he has serious wounds to his legs. A son of Deheisheh.

 

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E-mail:
levy@haaretz.co.il
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