If this is a war on terror, Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem. The first to die was an 80-year-old Palestinian man, whose body never made it to the morgue. Then a woman and her son were critically wounded by Israeli gunfire.
A cloud of black smoke swirled up in the Tempest winds from the other side of Manger Square. A burning Israeli armoured vehicle, they said, although – running for our lives as bullets crackled around us just below the Church of the Redeemer – there was no way of knowing. The air was alive with the sound of shells and rifle fire, the rain guttering in waves across the Israeli tanks which ground between the Ottoman stone houses, smashing into cars and tearing down shop hoardings.
Yes, the little town of Bethlehem lay still, its dark streets deserted save for the Israelis, but there was no everlasting light, no deep and dreamless sleep. As we huddled in our frightened little room with Norma Hazboun, a professor of social sciences at Bethlehem University, the sight of a Merkava tank crashing towards Qutaa Street, just 600 metres from the place of Christ’s birth, was the symbol of the hopes and fears of all the years.
Oslo, “peace” and “mutual respect” had brought us to this. A Closed Military Area had been declared once more by the Israelis. Jesus, one assumes, also had to deal with the Roman version of closed military areas, but he had God on his side. Yesterday, the people of Bethlehem had no one.
They waited for some statement from the Pope, from the Vatican, from the European Union. And what they got was an invasion of armour. We watched them all morning, the Merkavas and APCs stealing their way through the ancient streets searching for the “savages” of “terror” Ariel Sharon has told us about. And all the while, on the television set by the window of our Bethlehem room, we watched Palestine collapse around us. The Palestinian intelligence offices had been attacked in Ramallah. The Palestinians said hundreds of women and children were packed inside the besieged and shelled building as well as men. Then shells started falling on Dheisheh camp. We knew that already. Dheisheh was so close that the windows vibrated.
The Bethlehem television station was still operating from a few hundred yards away – the Israelis hadn’t got there yet – and there was Sharon on the screen. He was offering to let the Europeans fly Yasser Arafat out of Ramallah, providing he never returned to the land he calls Palestine. Back in 1982, Sharon made the same deal with Arafat; back then it was exile from Beirut with the help of the Americans. Not this time. Offer refused.
More shooting now from outside our windows. A tank came down the road, its barrel clipping the green awning of a shop and then swaying upwards to point directly at our window. We decamped to the stairwell. Had they seen us watching them? We stood on the cold, damp stairs then peeked around our window. Two Israeli soldiers were running past the house. A second tank shuddered up the street and swivelled its turret to the south.
We knew all about these tanks: their maximum speed, the voice of their massive engines. One raced across an intersection while we stood, in blue and black flak jackets marked with ‘TV’ in huge taped letters, arms spread out like ducks to show we carried no weapons. Each time we found a smaller street, another Israeli tracked vehicle would drive past it.
By the time we were close to Manger Square, we had tanks in front of us, APCs and another tank behind. That’s when the shooting began, the crack-crack of bullets fired from a few yards away. The Israelis? If it was coming from Palestinians, they were suicidally close. We ran across the road, down a narrow passage. It was then that Professor Hazboun unlocked her iron front door to us.
How snug we felt beside her gas fire, how trapped in her little home. How powerless to move. The TV became a monitor of Palestine’s disintegration. The newsreader stumbled on his words. Iran and Iraq might stop oil exports to force the Americans to demand an Israeli withdrawal. Arafat’s intelligence headquarters in Ramallah were on fire. An Israeli soldier was dead in an APC on the other side of Manger Square, hit by two Palestinian rockets. About 700 prisoners were bound and blindfolded in Ramallah. Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, was insisting Arafat was “recognised” as the Palestinian leader, and that this recognition would remain whether he was in Europe or anywhere else.
The smoke still rose behind Manger Square. The tank up the street backed towards the pavement and collided with the side of a house. The television newscaster, unshaven, exhausted and dressed in a leather jacket, read a statement from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, one of Sharon’s most lethal enemies. These are the wicked, cruel suicide bombers who have stricken Israel. “We will stand as Abu Amar (Yasser Arafat) said: For victory of martyrdom, as the enemy knows.” Outside, beside a cluster of lemon trees, two armoured carriers pulled up, their Israeli crews desperately trying to pump fuel from one vehicle to the other before Palestinian snipers picked them off. The bullets snapped around them within seconds and the two frightened soldiers threw themselves off the roofs to the shelter of a shop.
Then the mobile phone rang. An English voice, a lady from Wateringbury in Kent. My home was once in the next village of East Farleigh. But Liz Yates was not in Kent. She was only two miles away, in the Aida refugee camp with nine other westerners, two each from France and Sweden and five from the United States. They were refusing to leave. The voice had that sharpness born of intense tiredness and fear. “We want to help the 4,000 Palestinian refugees here. Everyone here believes the Israelis will come in and we’ve promised to stay here when they do. It will be some kind of protection. We are asking our consulates to pressure the Israelis into withdrawing.”
Some hope. Only a day earlier, an Israeli soldier opened fire on a group of unarmed western protesters near Bethlehem , wounding five of them in front of the BBC’s own cameras before trying to shoot television reporter Orla Guerin as well. We were thinking about that when the bullets flew around us on the road in central Bethlehem. We thought about it again when we crept out of the house in the late afternoon.
I had another call before we said goodbye to Professor Hazboun, from an American woman working with a Palestinian human rights group in Gaza. She could no longer reach the Rafah refugee camp, she said. She was copying the group’s computer files in case the Israelis took the originals as they had in Ramallah. “Everyone thinks they are coming.” Yes, they thought that at Aida camp as well. The Israelis are coming. But do the suicide bombers care?
We walked like robots back down those dangerous streets. It had been like this when the Israelis, having humiliated Arafat, invaded West Beirut in 1982. Sharon was in control then too. The Israelis were engaged, he told us then, in a “war on terror”. Civilians died in their thousands. And then came the massacre of Palestinians by Israeli allies at Sabra and Chatila. So when, I asked myself as we made our way back to Jerusalem, will the massacre start here?