The Long, Strange Trip Into Beit Jalla
The sky is overcast, and it begins to drizzle on the hills surrounding Bethlehem as we arrive at the mound blocking the entrance to the village of Beit Jalla. We drive slowly -- a convoy of about a hundred cars and four trucks, all loaded with food and medicine -- and then come to a halt.
The people of Beit Jalla have been under curfew for the last month, with no end in sight. For the first time in several days, the curfew has been lifted for a few hours, allowing them to stock up supplies (not that the shops in the village have much to offer). Several dozen residents decide to spend this precious time on coming to the roadblock in order to welcome us.
We shake hands and embrace, and then get down to work. The food in the cars is unloaded and passed over the mound to a truck waiting on the other side. Several boxes full of medicine -- urgently needed in a hospital for the mentally ill -- pass hands as well. Three of the trucks continue to other destinations (through a nearby road, controlled by the army), to villages and refugee camps in the Bethlehem area whose situation is even worse than that of Beit Jalla.
Meanwhile, Ta'ayush (an Arab-Jewish group that combines humanitarian aid with political action) organizes a public meeting. The Mayor of Beit Jalla is the first speaker. I listen to his description of life under curfew and constant siege as I pass through the crowd. I am looking for the parents of Laith, a nine year-older from Beit Jalla.
A few months ago, during a previous round of violence, Laith was smuggled out of his enclosed village by friends, and enjoyed a picnic and a visit to a theme-park in Israel. For one day he was like any other kid, free to run outside and play. This is how I got to know and like him; my family had joined him on his one day of freedom, and my six-year-old son Amos was one of his playmates. Now I get to meet his parents, a charming couple. It is an emotional moment.
For a brief while we have what resembles a normal conversation among parents. They inquire about Amos, I about Laith. But Laith's childhood is by no means normal. He has been confined to his home for four weeks now, without a single breath of fresh air. Even now, his parents don't allow him out. Too risky. They left him with his aunt, and must soon return for another unknown period of house-arrest. We part with the hope of meeting soon, perhaps under better circumstances.
I try to imagine my son, Amos, in Laith's situation, and find it hard to do. What do you tell a boy his age? How does one explain the need to stay at home? To be patient? What does he think when he sees soldiers roaming the village streets, imposing curfew and taking away his freedom?
Speaking of soldiers, they surround us from all sides. Yuri, one of the convoy's organizers is now speaking and addressing the military. He tells the soldiers that they are unwelcome here. He urges them to leave and return as guests rather than occupiers and colonizers, and wishes them a safe trip home. He tells them about the misery they are inflicting on the Palestinian civilians. About the hunger and poverty. About the feeling of the farmer who helplessly sees his crops rotting, unable to tend to them.
Yuri is followed by Liora. She speaks of the Palestinian women -- whose husbands have been detained by the army, and who are now single mothers caring for their children-- as the true victims and heroines of this war. The soldiers stand around us, revealing no emotion. I don't know what they are thinking. But it is clear they wish to be seen as part of our event. By allowing humanitarian aid to pass, they hope to prove that they are "the most humanitarian army in the world." One of them is even documenting the happening with a video-camera, presumably for PR purposes.
Just a fortnight ago, the army spokesperson used footage of a similar food convoy headed for the devastated Jenin camp, as proof of the humane nature of the Israeli troops (who were meanwhile bulldozing homes on their inhabitants). What the spokesman neglected to mention was that the army stopped the thirty plus trucks on route to Jenin, despite its promise to let them through, and allowed only a trickle of supplies to pass. With this recent bitter experience in mind, we are determined not to leave Beit Jalla until we are certain that the trucks have passed all of the military checkpoints. When news arrives from the drivers that they have reached their destination, we begin to wrap things up. We part from our hosts who must hurry home before the curfew is re-imposed, and send the long convoy of cars back to Israel. A few of us remain to wait for the returning truck-drivers.
As it turns out, though, our day's adventures are not quite over.
On the way back from Bethlehem, the Israeli military stops one of the empty trucks. Four armored vehicles surround it, a tank points its cannon at it, and the soldiers aim guns at the driver and force him out. We call the driver on the mobile phone; he sounds afraid. The soldiers who gave the truck its entry-permission at the checkpoint promise to release it, but there seems to be communication problem between them and the troops in Bethlehem. The minutes go by. It is now late afternoon, and sun is about to set. The truck has not yet been released, and we stand waiting, talking with the driver every few minutes to calm him down. It is cold.
But, as we try to warm ourselves, we get another chilling glimpse of the occupation. A small army pickup arrives at the checkpoint with three Palestinians lying in the back. They are in their fifties; their arms and legs are tightly tied, and their eyes are covered. It is quite obvious that they are not on the top of the army's most-wanted list, for they are left unattended. The army base is just around the corner, but no one seems in a hurry to take them in and interrogate them. They simply lie like cattle.
We approach the soldiers and ask them at least to uncover the detainees' eyes. They refuse. An argument ensues, in which the soldiers insist that their mode of action is the most humane. Nonetheless, they prohibit us from photographing the men. After some discussion, they allow us to give them water and cigarettes. We catch a brief word with them. They are from the Deheisha refugee camp. They have no idea where they are now. I don't know why they were arrested. But being a Palestinian man these days automatically makes you suspect, and the most trivial actions such as leaving your home turns you into a criminal.
At last, the truck arrives and we embrace the drivers, the true heroes of the day. We learn that while passing through Bethlehem a large group of residents desperately jumped on top of one truck, grabbing whatever they could. "They were not thieves," the driver, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, explains, "they were simply hungry. One old lady ran after us for a kilometer just to get one pack of rice. I saw very difficult sights," he added. "It is an altogether different world there, on the other side of the army checkpoint." We exchange a few more stories, take a photo next to the empty truck, and leave for Jerusalem. As we leave, the three men are still lying in the military pickup truck, tied and blindfolded.
Four cars and one truck drive quickly on the empty road. As the beautiful hills of Bethlehem turn to dusk, we hit the last army checkpoint. The soldiers manning it insist on stopping the Palestinians among us. They are, after all, Arabs. They take away their Israeli IDs for "inspection" which seems to go on for ever. They tell us that they have called the police to make sure their "record is clean." We wait together. Another hour passes. It is dark and the wind is freezing. Finally, we decide to protest. Two of us park their cars so as to block traffic to and from the nearby settlement, insisting that if we are not allowed to travel, neither will they. This stirs some commotion. The officer in charge arrives, IDs are returned, and we are free to go. We learn that the police had approved our entry a while ago but the soldiers wanted to keep us waiting longer, for the fun of it.
I arrive home a bit after seven. Galila is putting the kids to bed. I kiss Amos and tell him I met Laith's parents, and that they say hi. I tell him some but not all of what I experienced. I put him and my toddler-daughter Naomi to sleep. Then I pause to think. I know I saw only the surface, had only a tiny glimpse of what is really going on in occupied Palestine.
I haven't seen the really devastating scenes of Jenin and Nablus. But what I saw, heard and experienced-- the child confined to his home for a month, the old lady running after the food-truck, the men lying on the floor of the army vehicle, the soldiers humiliating my Palestinian friends at the roadblock-- all that was quite educational. It allowed me to understand that what Israel has been destroying in Palestine is all but the infrastructure of terrorism. It has been destroying the agricultural, educational, medical and road infrastructure; it has been eroding goodwill and undermining whatever is left of the Palestinian desire for peace. It has been sowing hunger, poverty, humiliation and hatred, all of which only serve to fortify the infrastructure of terrorism.
I go to sleep thinking of Amos and Laith, hoping that they can somehow grow up as friends.
Yigal Bronner is a member of Ta'ayush and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.