Bethlehem, Then and Now
One day in May 2000, we strapped the kids into the backseat and drove to Bethlehem. The journey lasted all of ten minutes: out of the house, a couple of left turns and a short zip along Hebron Road, past a decaying mobile-home village hurriedly erected for Ethiopian immigrants a decade earlier, and an archaeological dig uncovering remains of a Byzantine church built sixteen hundred years ago at the spot where Mary reputedly rested en route from Galilee to her world-changing delivery. There was only one roadblock separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem--the Israeli one; the Palestinian Authority never wished to acknowledge the outer limits of areas under its control. I slowed, intending to ask the army personnel whether there was any reason not to cross into PA territory, but I didn't get the chance. Two dusty-uniformed soldiers, peering out from a roadside kiosk planted among assorted knee-high hard plastic and concrete blocks, waved us through indifferently.
There was no sense whatsoever of having entered a different neighborhood, much less a different country. For a start, we'd seen no uniformed Palestinians. The main road featured the combined Hebrew and Arabic signposting that is routine inside Israel. The houses on either side were finished in the same golden Jerusalem stone as those in the Jewish neighborhoods behind us. Many of the cars carried the registration plates of the PA (green numbers on a white background), but there were plenty with yellow Israeli plates as well, including a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles parked outside the restaurant where some friends had suggested we might want to eat.
Inside, the decor was simple and unremarkable. We knew we were in the fiefdom of Yasser Arafat, rather than that of then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, only because of the small framed photograph near the kitchen that showed the beaming, sparkly-toothed proprietor standing alongside an equally sparkly Palestinian chairman. The menu was commonplace--hummus and tahini, hamburgers and chips--although the waiters, attending to that small crowd of Israeli jeep drivers and to three or four quieter tables of Palestinian and Israeli families, were wearing immaculate white jackets, which you'd never see in an Israeli restaurant.
This day out in the nearest big city, albeit one that happened to be in quasi-Palestine, was hardly a daring foray into potentially dangerous land. Indeed, if I'd thought there was any risk at all, we wouldn't have gone. My kids were eight, six and three at the time, and I'm not the kind of dad who takes unnecessary risks with them. Or, at least, I didn't think I was that kind of dad in those relatively easygoing days.
We drove leisurely on after lunch, and Bethlehem's fuller character started to reveal itself. There were hints of its past and, as it would turn out, future potential as a war zone in the massive concrete walls that the Israeli army had constructed after gun battles three years earlier around Rachel's Tomb. Much visited by childless mothers seeking assistance from the divine power that gave Jacob's wife her beloved Joseph and Benjamin, the area saw Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen firing on one another for days in September 1996, in what became known as the "Temple Mount Tunnel Riots"--confrontations that erupted across the West Bank after Israel secretively dug out a new opening to an ancient water tunnel alongside the ultrasensitive Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City. Amid similar confrontations, Israel would later abandon other enclaves at less prestigious holy sites inside Palestinian territory--an ancient synagogue on the outskirts of Jericho, and a tomb, rather sketchily linked to the biblical Joseph, on the edge of Nablus. But Rachel's Tomb was too central to the Jewish narrative, too symbolic, to relinquish. So instead of pulling out, the army brought in the builders, whose bleak roughcast barriers had now given the formerly modest site the aspect of a high-security prison.
As we drove farther into the city, Israeli-planted Hebrew signposting thinned out. But the occasional grocery or hardware store advertised its name in both Arabic and Hebrew, and a few dentists had even put up what appeared to be new Hebrew signs to promote their services. For the first time in years, it seemed, Israelis were being invited to place the fate of one of the most sensitive of body parts in the hands, literally, of those who had so recently been perceived as their enemies. We stopped at a warehouse-size store to price Ping-Pong tables. At a roadside grocery, we bought British chocolate bars, scarce in Israel because of the lingering effects of Arab boycott threats against companies that traded with the Jewish state. We strolled around Manger Square, past the polished plate-glass windows of the stores selling olive-wood souvenirs, and ducked low to enter the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity there, the reputed birthplace of Jesus. Unfazed, we drove past Deheishe refugee camp, once a major Intifada combat zone, where a towering stone sculpture showing the entire territory of pre-Israel mandatory Palestine stood in tribute to the "martyrs" who'd given their lives over the decades of struggle. And when we got lost en route to one of our destinations, Solomon's Pools, ancient reservoirs that used to be a staple of every Jewish tourist group's visit to Israel, we did what good boys and girls who grow up in London (me) and Dallas (my wife, Lisa) are told to do: We asked a policeman, in this case a machine gun-packing Palestinian policeman in a dark blue uniform, who cheerfully redirected us. He even commandeered a loitering teenager, who jumped into the car to ensure we didn't stray again, and who waved us good-bye when we'd found the historic spot, which was located next to the construction site of a substantial shopping mall.
Lisa had been mildly concerned when the youth bounded unexpectedly into the car, and she was more so when we drove farther from the main Bethlehem drag into a neighboring village called Artis, the site of an exquisite church and a backstreet art gallery. When I parked the car, we were immediately surrounded by curious young Palestinian children, who followed us to the doorway of the gallery. But Lisa's understandable concern was misplaced. The whole day passed as uneventfully as I had expected it would. We broadened our horizons and were back in Israel before dusk.
These, after all, were the months of hope and optimism, and the intermingling of our two populations. More than 100,000 Palestinian construction workers, agricultural laborers, hotel waiters and other jobholders were legally making the daily journey into Israel. Perhaps three times that number were making the same journey without the necessary work permits. Israel was thus the absolute mainstay of the Palestinian economy. And hundreds of thousands of Israelis like us were spending Saturdays shopping, eating and seeing the sights in a once Wild West Bank that had now apparently been tamed. Israel had a year earlier elected a prime minister, Barak, whose central campaign platform had been his pledge to attain a permanent peace accord with the supposedly eager Arafat. Peace with Syria, we were led to believe, was but a diplomatic finesse away, and our much-anticipated New Middle East seemed to be taking shape before our eyes. One of the Israel TV newsmagazine shows had just screened a feature about Israeli travel agencies running oversubscribed tours to Gaza, taking Israeli tourists to view firsthand the horrors of the notorious refugee camps mere minutes away: "Here we are at Jebalya, where the Intifada started in 1987." They didn't call it the "first Intifada" back then. The TV crew had filmed a middle-aged Israeli housewife calling home on her cell phone, wide-eyed at the indignities being suffered by the downtrodden Gaza populace she had just been to see, detailing the appalling overcrowding, the empty refrigerators, the sewage running down the narrow camp alleys. "You wouldn't believe it!" she exclaimed, every inch the pampered, camera-clutching Western sightseer, reeling with horrified fascination on initial exposure to the underdeveloped world.
The underlying assumption of these Gaza visits, indeed of the entire craze of visiting Palestine, was that here was a vanishing world, and that this was the last chance to espy the repressed Palestinian in his pitiful habitat, the manipulated pawn of the cynical Middle East powers now about to be liberated, freed to pluck the juicy fruits of peace. At The Jerusalem Report, we had just run a cover story titled "Crossing the Great Divide," which detailed that burgeoning phenomenon of Israelis weekending on the other side of the checkpoints. The article, by Peter Hirschberg, documented the lengthy traffic jams that built up every Saturday as thousands of motorists headed toward the West Bank shopping meccas, Palestinian stores where the prices for just about everything, from kitchen utensils to furniture to jeans and teddy bears, were 50 percent below Israeli costs. It noted the heavy baccarat, roulette and blackjack action at the Oasis casino, a pink-stone incongruity opposite a refugee camp in the desert outside Jericho, where daily takings were believed to commonly exceed $1 million, much of it heading into PA coffers. It listed the varied attractions that were drawing Israelis to other benevolent "hot spots": the healing waters of Nablus; the spanking new Jericho cable car, ascending to the monastery at Jesus' testing ground atop the "Mount of Temptation"; the line of cheap jewelry stores in Gaza City's "Gold Market." Shlomo Dror, an official from the Civil Administration, the Israeli authority that had overseen years of Israeli occupation and was gradually becoming irrelevant as territory was handed over to the PA, told us that the Palestinians were doing everything to protect the Israelis and thus safeguard the growing economic interaction. "The Palestinians are feeling the impact of the peace process," he exulted. "They see that it improves the economy. This is in all our interest." Only one interviewee in the article, Eli Sarig, a pensioner from Tel Aviv, cornered on a day trip to Gaza, sounded a sour note: "One bomb and this is all over," he muttered warily. Then he added with quite remarkable prescience, "If there's no agreement on Jerusalem or the fate of the refugees, the PA might ease up on Hamas, and who will come here then?"
I know that the Palestinians with whom we came into contact on that family outing to Bethlehem, and the tens of thousands who could have come into contact with us had they chosen to, were not watching our innocent progress through their city with barely suppressed hatred and revulsion, poised with knives behind their backs to stab me, my wife, my two sons and my daughter the moment their leadership signaled for the murdering to begin. I'm not saying that their hearts genuinely lifted at the sight of our arrival, but they were profiting from our presence, "feeling the impact" of coexistence, as Shlomo Dror put it. And the construction of that shopping mall across from Solomon's Pools, like the massive contemporaneous investment in refurbishing grand but dilapidated hotels and the erection of new ones, was predicated on the firm conviction that something really had changed, that the two peoples were a long way down the road, if not to full and lasting peace, then to a considerable degree of banal and mutually beneficial reconciliation.
And yet, within just a few months of our little visit, this fragile era of interaction was spectacularly concluded, overtaken by an eruption of violence so widespread and so pervasive as to render that earlier period almost inconceivable, impossible to credit if you hadn't experienced it yourself. The Ping-Pong table catalog I brought home that day sits in a living-room cupboard like the prized relic cherished by the hero of one of those kids' fantasy stories, the only tangible proof to the brave adventurer, and to those who doubted him, that he had actually journeyed to the lost world and lived to tell the tale. By that October, Rachel's Tomb was again a focus of armed confrontation, just one of countless flash points throughout the West Bank. Palestinian gunmen had established a reign of fear in much of Bethlehem, commandeering the adjacent Christian village of Beit Jala, from which they poured bullets into Gilo, the southernmost Jerusalem neighborhood across the valley, home to many of our friends and barely five minutes from our own house. That same month, two Israeli reservists--Yosef Avrahami, thirty-eight, and Vadim Norzich, thirty-five--suffering from a fatal lack of directional sense, had blundered harmlessly toward a Palestinian police checkpoint outside Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, been captured at gunpoint, dragged to the city police station and beaten and battered to death there by a savage, bloodthirsty, baying mob. The Jericho casino had disproved its "Oasis" moniker, serving as a firing ground for Palestinian gunmen and attracting the consequent attentions of Israeli shells, which shattered its elegant facade and brought down the ceiling of the gaming hall. The brief era of the Jericho cable car was well and truly over. Cheap West Bank shopping was a thing of the past. Only a suicidal lunatic would have gone refugee-camp sight-seeing in Gaza. And it was front-page news when an amateur Israeli hang-gliding enthusiast, helpless in a wicked wind, crash-landed in Ramallah and made it out without being attacked.
In May 2002, almost two years to the day since that family outing, I spent another afternoon in Bethlehem, watching the final denouement of yet another nadir in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the six-week siege at the Church of the Nativity, in the course of which several people, including the church's own bell ringer, lost their lives. There were no happy-go-lucky Israeli families entering Christ's city that day, no customers at the restaurants, no Israeli mouths trustingly open beneath the assured hands of concerned Palestinian dentists. In the preceding weeks, in a desperate last-resort effort to thwart waves of Palestinian suicide bombers dispatched into Israel across the porous borders from Bethlehem and other West Bank population centers, the Israeli army had reoccupied this city and most others. Storefronts were reduced to rubble. Some of those expensively rebuilt hotels had been destroyed all over again. In places, the roads themselves had been ripped up by Israeli bulldozers. As in previous antiterror incursions over the last months, countless people had been killed, many of them Palestinian civilians.
As a passenger in a clear plastic-walled jeep driven by a freelance Canadian photographer who careened through the streets, I was fairly confident there would be few Palestinian gunmen foolish enough to show themselves and risk their lives in the Israeli-held city by firing on us, and I consequently was more concerned about incurring the wrath of the Israeli forces, around whose tank barrels we had to maneuver disconcertingly on a number of occasions. Abandoning the vehicle perhaps sixteen hundred feet from Manger Square, we walked through the empty streets toward the church, our footsteps echoing in the silence, watched from behind barred windows by Palestinian families kept inside by Israeli curfew orders. We passed dozens of cars casually crushed by Israeli tanks, and walked through the vegetable market with its putrid, foul-smelling produce, hurriedly abandoned when the Israelis arrived.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Still Life with Bombers by David Horovitz. Copyright © 2004 by David Horovitz. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.