A PILGRIM'S GUIDE TO BETHLEHEM
Saturday, 27 October 2001
BETHLEHEM, Palestine -- Jesus taught his followers that they
were to be "salt" and "light" in the world (Matthew 5.13,14). How do we
do this today? One way to be faithful to our calling is to be witnesses
for truth, and witnesses against wrong and injustice. In this way we
contribute toward the justice and healing required for the preservation
of life and the holding back of evil and death.
I want to bear witness today to what I have seen in Bethlehem this week.
What I am reporting to you is not more political propaganda to trump one
cause over another. It is simply a record of a few of the events taking
place this week. It is up to you to make sense of them and explain them
to yourselves and others.
At least 22 people from Bethlehem have died in the past 10 days. The
current cycle of killings began on October 18th with the assassinations
of three young men who were on Israel's "wanted" list. Any death is
tragic, but those of us who live elsewhere are usually able to read
about such deaths from the newspaper over our breakfast and shrug them
off as the unfortunate but unavoidable price of conflict.
However, the stories of the 19 others who died this week, and the events
surrounding them, are deeply disturbing, and force us to look deeper
into the reality of the Palestinian experience under occupation. I can
tell you a few of these stories first hand.
On Friday, October 19th, Musa George Abu Aid , 19 years old, was shot in
his living room standing next to his father, and collapsed dead as his
father stood helplessly. An Israeli sniper could evidently see shadows
through the living room window curtains. Identities were not important
to the shooters.
On this same day a young mother in a village just south of Bethlehem had
gone into labor and was experiencing complications. Her husband put her
in the car and tried to rush her to the hospital in Jerusalem. He was
blocked by Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint near Rachel's tomb in
Bethlehem and refused permission to pass. Despite all his desperate
pleadings they maintained their refusal as precious time slipped away.
His wife, Marian Suboh, 28, and her unborn child died waiting for
On Saturday, October 20, a young 17-year-old boy named Johnny Thaljiah
was walking across Manger Square at noon. If any of you have come to the
Church of the Nativity as a pilgrim in the past three years, you may
have met Johnny. He would often sit at the entrance to the Church and
hand out scarves or other covering for those who wished to enter the
Church but were inappropriately attired. An Orthodox Christian, on this
day he had just been at worship with his family in Nativity Church. He
was carrying the baby of one of his cousins, trying to make the baby
Less than 100 feet from Nativity Church, he was shot by an Israeli
sniper from a hill nearly a mile away. Johnny gently lay the baby down
on the stones of Manger Square and then fell over dead. Johnny was not
on anyone's "wanted" list. He was a Christian worshipping with his
family in the oldest Christian church in the world.
Johnny was shot dead for sport, serving as human target practice.
Perhaps a wager or competition between Israeli soldiers to see if they
could hit a moving target at such a distance. Like shooting a rabbit or
squirrel. They are very good. And their equipment was the very newest
and best sniper rifles U.S. tax dollars could buy. They had good
Later that day Rania Elias Kharofah, a 22 years old Orthodox Christian
and a mother of two young children, convinced her husband that she drive
to get the food because it might not be safe for a man. While on her way
to the store she was shot in the arm by sniper fire. She got out of her
car and took refuge in a shop. An Israeli tank approached the shop and
all the people in the shop ran out into the street. Rania, wounded and
unable to run, tried to crouch back in a corner and hide. The tank
shelled the shop and covered it with machine gun fire. Rania was later
found dead with multiple bullet wounds.
Also on Saturday Eisha Abu Ada, 39, and a mother of 8 children, left her
family in Jerusalem to go to Bethlehem and visit her parents to see if
they were safe and to seek to provide anything they might need under the
siege. This brave, devoted daughter was shot by a sniper bullet in her
On Sunday, October 21st, Muhammad Baraga, 30, a deaf person, was shoot
by Israeli soldiers in front of his home because he could not hear their
orders to him.
On Tuesday, October 23rd, Christian leaders in Jerusalem organized a
march to pass through the checkpoint at Rachel's tomb to break the
siege. Television cameras joined the procession. When they arrived at
the checkpoint the blockade had been lifted and tanks mysteriously
disappeared throughout Bethlehem. For two hours no sniper fire was heard
as the Christian procession made its way to the Nativity Church at
Manger Square and held a worship service to pray for the people of
By early afternoon the Christian protesters were gone and the tanks were
back. That night and for the next two nights wide destruction was
visited on Manger Street beginning one block from our office building.
As I walked up the street on Thursday, I counted at least 21 shops on
the west side of the street that were completely demolished and their
contents destroyed. Israeli tanks had simply driven into the shops,
crushing walls, doors, and goods inside. In some shops they fired shells
so that they were also set on fire. Some of these ruined buildings
included the humble one or two room homes of the shopkeepers.
The tanks had also driven down a narrow back alley behind these shops,
shelling the crowded, meager homes there, strafing families' windows
with machine gun fire, and dislodging foundations, walls and balconies
with the tank tracks and cannon barrels. The whole scene was like some
bizarre video game was being played out on the streets of
On the east side of the street nine other shops had been destroyed in
the same manner. Six of these shops were at the street level of the
Paradise Hotel, owned by the Abu Aitah family, Orthodox Christians from
Beit Sahour (Shepherds Field). Fires broke out from the destruction of
the shops and caught an overhead canopy on fire.
The Palestinian fire department tried to arrive on the scene to save the
six-story hotel above the shops, but they were denied access for hours
by the Israeli tanks and soldiers. Sami Awad and I stood by helplessly
one block away (we could not get closer because of menacing tank guns)
and watched as the flames went higher and the rest of the hotel was
gutted by fire.
Throughout the middle of the week, much similar wanton destruction was
done in other parts of the city that we were unable to see first hand
for several days because it was dangerous to move about due to sniper
fire. The multi-storied, modern Kar'aa Shopping Center building was
shelled and burned. Shells were fired upon Bethlehem University. The
maternity hospital of St. Joseph's was partially destroyed and infants
had to be evacuated under fire. Bullets strafed the main hospital in
Bethlehem several times.
Constant shelling destroyed numerous homes in the Aida and Azza refugee
camps. Most of you would not even call many of the structures of these
camps homes. Refugee families have been living in pitiful, tin roofed
cement brick cubicles since 1948. By now the number of people, or even
families, per room is unthinkable by our standards. But these poor
buildings were their home. They have tried to make improvements and take
pride in their camp quarters. At least they provided some kind of
shelter from the winter cold. These are the poorest of the poor in
Bethlehem. Nonetheless, their "homes" were believed worthy of
concentrated destruction. Shelling on these refugee camps is still going
on this very day.
At first we heard all these reports in disbelief, but by Friday were
able to drive around Bethlehem and see much of this damage with our own
eyes. And the killings continued. On Wednesday, October 24th, Issa Jalil
el-Ali, a 55-year-old Catholic Christian who was the father of five, was
hit by a sniper bullet bringing food home to his family. His wife was in
the car beside him but could no nothing as he died. Sami Awad and I
attended his funeral at the Church of the Nativity on Thursday. During
this day, 39-year-old Salama al-Dibis, sniper bullets killed the father
of nine children, at the front of his house. On the afternoon of Friday,
October 26th, 28-year-old Faras Salahat was joyfully running last minute
errands in preparation for his wedding that very night. He was shot by
sniper fire and the families gathered for the wedding feast attended his
funeral the following day.
The stories go on like this but I can't bear any more and I am sure you
can't either. All of the events I am describing to you have been
senseless acts of murder and destruction. No military objectives were
achieved, accept to give the message to the people of Bethlehem that the
Israeli army and government could do anything they wanted at any time to
anyone and no one in the world would be able to stop them. The
officially designated name given by the Israeli military for this
operation in Bethlehem was called "Knife through Butter". They knew it
would be easy and that little resistance could be given to the most
heinous acts. They must also know that such an operation can only create
deeper despair and greater fury among the population of Bethlehem,
historically one of the more peaceful towns in the West Bank.
The senseless destruction of what will surely be millions of dollars of
property will significantly damage the economies of Bethlehem and
Palestine as a whole, economies already collapsing from 13 months of
siege. For individual shopkeepers and property owners it will mean their
complete ruin. Many believe that the best hope to end what Israel is
labeling "terrorism" is to create a viable State and economy in the West
Bank and Gaza that will give the Palestinians secure land and homes and
with them new hope and purpose. Why then is the Israeli army, which
declares that it is "only seeking to secure the safety of our Jewish
citizens", engaging in acts that will unquestionably lead to deeper
hatred and strongly encourage many more young men to take up arms to
defend their families and their families honor? Why?
One last story. Today, Saturday, October 27th, Sami Awad and I went to
visit the father of Johnny Thaljiah, the young boy killed in Manger
Square one week ago. After sharing his grief for a time, he asked us to
go with him to attend another memorial service taking place in Manger
Square for several other young men killed during the week. More than 100
people had gathered in the Square, representing many families from
Bethlehem, to express their grief and share their condolences with the
families of the dead. As the service was in progress, suddenly five or
six shots whistled over our heads across the Square. People began
running for cover in various directions, mindful that Johnny had been
killed in the Square in just this way.
Sami and I began walking across the Square with Johnny's father, heading
back to his home. When we got near the spot where Johnny was killed
another volley of shots was fired over the Square. Then Sami pointed to
one of the crosses on top of the Church of the Nativity. This time their
target was a lighted Orthodox cross on the roof of the Church. From a
mile away, and at the angle they were shooting, this was an extremely
difficult target. But the expert snipers managed to hit the center of
the cross with several shots. The sacred grief of the gathered mourners
had been disrupted by the desire of the Israeli snipers to send us a
message. And the message was?
If such an act had been committed in the U.S. against a Church or
Synagogue, those committing the act would be hunted down and subjected
to very severe penalties of laws that address "hate crimes" (acts
committed as expressions of hatred toward any religious or ethnic
group). In the occupied territories of Palestine, such acts are
sponsored by the military of Israel and supported by U.S. tax
Why was a cross used as target practice? Why are innocent civilians
being terrorized in their homes and murdered in the streets? Why is
property being senselessly destroyed? Why? Why? Why?
And who will stop any of these things from happening again
Israel is very confident that no one will. Who would dare?
Bearing witness from Bethlehem,
Robin Wainwright, Holy Land Trust U.S.A.
Sami Awad, Holy Land Trust
1800 Cedar Street
Berkeley, California 94703
Telephone: (510) 841-4106
noon til six, Monday thru Saturday