An Afternoon in Bethlehem

It was January of 2007, I turned 25 that December, when I found myself standing in a small room, decorated with a beautiful blue and gold traditional rug adorning the wall, holding my pack. The

Palestinians Burning American and Israeli Flags

flight from Pristina, Kosovo had been short in comparison to recent transoceanic hauls, but it brought a sense of tension and trepidation unknown on other travels. I arrived in Tel Aviv late in the afternoon for a 10 day trip, beginning in Jerusalem. A family friend met me at the airport, explaining that it was a good time for me to be there. A recent streak of violence had just ended, and the Israelis, it appeared, were coming to terms with the new Hamas government. While they were never going to except its legitimacy, or forget the apparent violent threat it posed, it seemed, for the moment, the seas had calmed.

 On the drive to my new, temporary home, an expansive flat located in a large Lutheran compound near the Mt. of Olives, with beautiful views of the surrounding valleys, my host explained the most recent goings on. The election of the Hamas government, which the United States deemed a terrorist organization (and still does), forced all U.S. government personnel from Palestine. My host, an employee of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a component of the U.S. State Department, said all projects in Palestine had been indefinitely suspended, forcing scores of aid workers to leave as a recognized timetable for the resumption of diplomatic relations hadn’t been negotiated, until shortly before my arrival.

I knew of all this already: my mom and her husband lived in Jerusalem while he worked as chief of party for a USAID program. One of the projects on his docket, that he personally oversaw, was the creation of dozens of greenhouses, intended to hasten the process from planting to picking for a variety of crops, which were going to be a large component of Palestinian food security. Instead, the election of the Hamas government resulted in that particular project’s abandonment, while one of the most atrocious of these politically motivated actions was the rotting of millions of dollars worth of crops in the fields. Additionally, Allan Hubbard, the under Secretary of State to Condoleezza Rice, was slated to begin working directly with him on numerous projects, which was also put on hold while the dust settled.

Israel Bombing Palestine

I don’t believe that either side is innocent, and am entirely unwilling to accept the legitimacy of Palestinian retaliation, or Israeli aggression, but the violent expression of Palestinian frustration is understandable. American media portrays the Arab word as a chaotic, boiling caldron, especially as of late with the embassy bombing in Bengazi, and the Palestinian portraiture faces the same fate. Suicide bombings are highlighted on the nightly news, but Gilad Sharon‘s call to flatten Gaza and increase the settlements go unnoticed by the majority of American media, aside from the op-ed Gaza Without End in the New York Times.

My personal experience was very different from what the media offers, as I spent an incredible afternoon in Bethlehem, with Tarik, a 26 year-old Palestinian, and contemporary. As we began our walk, and I began to ask questions about his life and experiences, the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA) proved itself to be an integral component in his home life; both his father and brother served jail time for their affiliation.

Rounding a bend in the street, we stopped to take in the view: Jerusalem lay just across a small valley, close enough to nearly hit with a rock. This spot, a break in the disheveled rhythm of homes and businesses,offered an unencumbered, straight shot at the holy city. Tarik explained that not too long before, a car full of PLA fired 6 rockets into the city as a violent reaction to recent Israeli actions. He didn’t condone the actions, as I was half expecting, instead he lambasted the violence from both sides. The 6 PLA rockets came from a place of frustration and powerlessness, two of the most powerful tools in the terrorist recruiter’s bag, and the hour long volley conducted by the Israelis, nearing the point of absurdity, a harsh penalty for desperation.

Continuing our walk, we found ourselves at a huka lounge where we sat to watch the sunset and smoke. Here, Tarik recalled some of his personal adventures when crossing into Jerusalem. For those who don’t know, Palestinians are required to carry an identification card on their person at all times, and are subject to arrest or transportation back to Palestinian territory if they are caught on the wrong side of the wall on days or times when access has been restricted. I wouldn’t call Tarik a saint, as a couple girls knew him on our walk, a result more of male exuberance and appreciation of the female form than a sinful nature, so his exploits into foreign lands didn’t come as a shock. What did unnerve me was the relationship Palestinians have with check points when crossing or attempting to cross the border. Depending on the mood of the Israeli guard, many are denied thoroughfare altogether, while others are arrested standing in line to re-enter when the gates are closed, others still, are left to find shelter overnight or until the gates are re-opened. Tarik, who said he had been trapped in Jerusalem for 3 days once, explained he had been shopping when the Israeli government announced the discovery of a potential Palestinian threat, having entered the city through one of the gates, and closed all access points down. Unbeknownst to him, Tarik made his way back to the gate only to be warned to turn away by people fleeing the border or risk arrest/detention. With the stories of Israeli jail from his father and brother ringing in his ears, he fled into a city only half-known to him. For 3 days and nights he hid in the Arab portion of Jerusalem, sleeping on the street with others who had been caught without a chair when the music stopped. Exhausted, hungry, and broke he finally made his way home.

There were other times, he said, that he climbed the wall into Israel to find food for his family. Sanctions and restrictions on transportation into and out of Bethlehem had severely depleted supplies (very few are able to afford refrigerators),  and nearly a week without fresh deliveries saw meat and produce rot in the stores. Everyone, including Tarik, was anxious for regular delivery to resume, but the Israelis weren’t offering a sense of when that might happen, so he took it upon himself to solve the family’s problem. He took advantage of a weak spot in the wall in the early morning hours with a few friends, and made his way to a safe corner of the city to await the markets opening. He managed to successfully return, but his arrival was once again shrouded under the cover of darkness, and incredibly risky. The Israelis had become aware of people illegally crossing the border to find food and other supplies, and had consequently stepped up patrols as a deterrent, forcing those without steely resolve, or too much to lose from incarceration, to find other methods to dim their hunger pangs.

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