[Dictated over phone]
Today was the first day that the military curfew was lifted a few hours. With a few internationals I left the hotel and walked around town.
We walked down the center of the road scouting around for tanks or soldiers. It was the first time we had witnessed the damage inflicted to the little town of Bethlehem. Chunks of rubble sat baking in the sun, smashed cars glittered from the center of broken window mosaics, a blue phone booth lay demolished nearly unrecognizable if not for the dislocated key pad abandoned on the sidewalk.
While walking a Palestinian family peaked out their front door. “Where are you from?” “United States,” we answer. “Oh good Americans,” they encourage with big smiles. “You crazy to walk around.” I smile and point to my head, “Good crazy.” They ask if they can give us money to buy them bread. Apparently a convent around the corner has a bakery but they’re afraid to go into the streets.
We refused the money and tiptoe in the direction of their pointed fingers towards Manger Square. I’m hoping it is only a few blocks. The white stone buildings that line the narrow streets are adorned in charred battle scars. Chunks of rubble are scattered on the stone pavement. Squashed fruits and vegetables collect in corners and doorways. A large water pipe was flooding the deserted street, spraying into the dented entrances of empty businesses. Beth and I recognize a disembodied piece of tank lying on the road covered with smashed lemons and trash. Finally we spot a church.
A metal gate was twisted into some sort of post-bombing sculpture. We slipped between the bars and rang the back bell of the church. Glass crunched under our boots as we waited for a response. The door cracked open and a timid looking priest in little glasses peaked nervously out. He visibly relaxed when he saw us. We asked him the location of the convent and he points back to where we came from. As an afterthought, “I come with, I need bread to.” He’s looking over both soldiers as he slips into the open like a beaten dog flinching at every noise.
The press milling around look like soldiers themselves wearing helmets and flack jackets with “Press” or “TV” written on them, even the 36 inch zoom lenses seem intimidating from a distance.
We walk quickly to a closed storefront. The priest banged on the metal door and yelled someone’s name. No answer. Again. No answer.
We attempted to go to another bakery. The priest was clearly afraid of snipers. Instead we decide not to go any further and promise to bring him bread if we find any.
We’re disappointed to return to the original family’s house empty handed. But the family is delighted to see us and immediately we’re ushered into have tea. Over tea we hear the pain of the family. “For one and a half years we do not sleep,” our host shares with us. In one and half years Bethlehem has been invaded four times. This most recent invasion following less than a month on the heels of the last, the tank dust not even completely settled.
“This town need tourist, but in one and a half years no tourist,” he continued. I don’t have to ask what that means. No tourist, no income. No income, no bread. The holy town of Bethlehem is shell-shocked and terrorized, the brutality reining from hundreds of olive green tanks.
Nancy Stohlman is one of four Coloradans in Palestine in solidarity with Palestinians under siege by the Israeli military. More information about their trip can be found at http://www.ccmep.org/palestine.html