Charles Glass

At sunset on Christmas Day last year, hundreds of Palestinian Arabs from the once Christian towns of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour assembled outside the burned and gutted Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem to protest Israel’s blockade of their towns. The Paradise was damaged in October, during what the Israeli Army called its ‘incursion’ – a euphemism inherited from Richard Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia – into towns under the nominal jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. Young men distributed dry sticks of olive wood to dip into a barrel of fire. In Arabic and English, white banners proclaimed ‘Jerusalem is also holy for Palestinians’ and ‘History repeats itself: yesterday Nero, today Sharon.’ Torches alight and banners aloft, the marchers sang the anthem of the American civil rights movement, ‘We Shall Overcome’, as they moved up the Caritas Road. Their route skirted the city’s main thoroughfare, sealed off for more than a year by the Israeli Army to anyone other than Jews visiting the site of Rachel’s Tomb. From a hilltop in a silent residential quarter, the vigil filed down to the junction where the main road to Jerusalem reopens – but only as far as the Israeli roadblock five hundred yards away.

The parade passed under fairy lights and neon stars – decorations put up for the benefit of Western pilgrims whose fear of aircraft hijackers, Israeli troops and Palestinian rebels had kept them far from Bethlehem on the anniversary of Christ’s birth. A few dozen Europeans and Americans, as well as priests and nuns, reassured the Palestinians that the Israeli troops were unlikely to open fire in their presence. Some of the foreigners’ T-shirts bore the insignia ‘Protection – Peuple Palestinien’ to indicate that they were freelance observers of Israeli conduct. Palestinians have asked for official observers authorised to report to the UN under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, a demand so far resisted by the Israeli Government and the US. The march stopped at the Israeli checkpoint blocking the exit from Bethlehem.

Palestinians cannot go more than five miles in any direction within the Occupied Territories before coming up against an Israeli checkpoint, beyond which most of them cannot travel. Some checkpoints are worse than others, but all of them have the authority to prevent Palestinians from going to their places of work, to the houses of their extended families, to schools, hospitals, farms, or anywhere outside their own villages and towns. The most public humiliation of Palestinians occurs at these checkpoints. I have seen soldiers beat and tear-gas civilians and I have read in Israeli newspapers of groups of soldiers forcing young men to undress and cross a checkpoint in the Gaza Strip wearing only their underpants, or dividing Palestinian women into two queues – those they judged to be pretty on one side, ugly on the other – before allowing them to pass.

Bethlehem’s residents, in common with Palestinians in the rest of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, may neither leave their town nor return to it without written permission from the Israeli authorities. Permits are difficult to obtain and stipulate fixed times of return, after which the holder can be arrested. Like the Israeli settlements of Har Homa and Gilo surrounding Bethlehem, the town’s checkpoint had begun modestly and grown. It was being expanded when the marchers came at Christmas; it now had a passport booth, a partially paved footpath around the side of the main road, a payphone, steel benches for those whose identity cards aroused suspicion, and tons of concrete to protect Israeli soldiers. Israeli workers, who were connecting electricity wires to a new kiosk in the middle of the central reserve, went on with their task during the marchers’ confrontation with the Israeli troops. Palestinian municipal engineers can wait days before getting permission to leave their cities to repair damaged electrical wires and water conduits, but nothing impedes work on checkpoints.

Israeli troops forged an armed human chain to stop the march at the checkpoint. Some of the troops were smiling and looked as likely to join the march as to block it. Others did not conceal their contempt for the demonstrators. Where the procession halted, an American Catholic priest and a Frenchwoman stood facing a soldier who seemed old enough to be in charge. ‘We are not going to hurt anybody,’ Father Michael Dougherty of Lansing, Michigan said. ‘We just want access to this place’ – he pointed north – ‘to Jerusalem.’ From the checkpoint, Jerusalem was a ten-minute drive. A young American marcher urged the soldiers: ‘Come, join us in Jerusalem.’ The older soldier ordered the demonstrators to disperse, but they held their ground. Over the next ten minutes, they pushed the soldiers back about a hundred feet to the concrete barriers through which cars must twist and turn to clear the checkpoint. There they stopped. Some of them sat in the road and chanted: ‘No violence, no violence.’ My driver, a young Muslim from Bethlehem, was enthusiastic. ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘Christians, Muslims, Jews together. It’s very good.’

Father Dougherty said to the soldiers: ‘We are giving you three minutes, and then we are going to the monastery to pray.’ This was less a challenge than a compromise. It acknowledged that the troops would obey their standing orders not to allow Palestinians into Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Elias lay a few hundred yards beyond the checkpoint. They would go there, pray and then return to Bethlehem. The Israelis appreciated the gesture, and Father Dougherty was told to wait for a senior officer with whom he could negotiate.

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[*] The Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into A, B and C areas. Every tiny A zone of nominal Palestinian control is surrounded by a B area of Israeli security control combined with Palestinian administrative rule which is, in turn, encircled by a C area under total Israeli security and civilian control. On my first visit to the territories after the 1993 Oslo Accords, the plethora of checkpoints reminded me of wartime Lebanon. Amnesty International reports the the Palestinian A areas are divided into 227 small ghettos – even in Lebanon there weren’t as many as that.

[†] Verso, 354 pp., £45 and £13, 21 September 2001, 1 859 84377 8.