All is calm all is bright. Isn’t this what the famous Christmas hymnal says about Bethlehem? Well, Bethlehem nowadays is neither calm nor bright, unless one considers the almost unbreakable 24-hours curfew imposed on the people of Bethlehem as calmness, or sees the headlights of the thundering Armored Vehicles and Tanks, roaming the streets of Bethlehem at night, as brightness. Yet, calmness and brightness are not the only concepts being redefined by the curfews imposed on the Palestinians. The stifling stillness of the long curfew hours, which is lifted once every 4 days for 4 hours only, has redefined the meaning of time and space.
Once the curfew is lifted, everyday activity that one needs to conduct outside of one’s home has to be squeezed into 4 hours. The dilemma for each Palestinian, every time the curfew is lifted, is deciding upon what would be the most important things to do during these four hours. Is it going to work, going to school, paying the doctor a visit, visiting relatives, getting engaged or married, going to funerals of loved ones, taking the children for an outing, going grocery shopping, or a million other things that normal people do. For those fortunate enough to be among the 50% of the Palestinian population who still have jobs, they go to work. Yet, how much can one achieve at a workplace in less than 8 hours a week? Since not everything can be done in 4 hours, one has to cancel many activities or perform them during the curfew.
Going to work every time the curfew is lifted does not leave me any time to do other things. Therefore, I decided one late afternoon to break the curfew’s artificial calmness and go for a cup of coffee to a friend’s house. Not tempting fate too much, I made my way though the backyards of the neighborhood’s houses. The second-floor veranda was the perfect place to have coffee while enjoying the cool breeze and the beautiful weather of that day. With every sip of coffee, thoughts about the maddeningly motionless daily curfews, the oppressive sieges, the brutal disregard for human life, and the unprecedented levels of poverty were slowly moving to the back of my mind. Half an hour into what was until then a pleasant visit, the familiar ominous sounds broke the stillness of the area. A huge tank, five armored vehicles and two jeeps made their way into the narrow, one-way street, stopping in front of the newly renovated Shepherds Hotel. Screaming children and howling dogs started running in all directions, while women in housecoats stood by their doors calling their children to come inside. A few men looked out of their windows, while the rest hid, worried that the soldiers were there to arrest them.
My friend and I remained in our places and watched as the cannon of the tank rotated slowly, stopping at an angle facing the hotel. The five armored vehicles opened to unload 30 to 40 soldiers, making clicking sounds with their automatic rifles as they took shooting positions against the front wall of the hotel. Dragging two of the neighbors from their houses, the soldiers ordered them to open the hotel. We later understood that the hotel owner, who lives in Beit Sahour, anticipated such a scenario and gave his property keys to the neighbors to save the hotel door from being bombed. The soldiers flooded the hotel once the doors were opened, but kept few soldiers in the street to keep watch.
Not long after that, three young Palestinian men were brought out of the hotel and told to go home. One of the workers was from Hebron and he was told to go there immediately. The possibility that he might get shot at, while driving home during curfew, did not seem like a good reason for the soldiers to allow him to stay in Bethlehem, at least till the morning. One soldier then asked for the telephone number of the hotel owner and arrogantly told him over the phone that he and his company will be his “guests for the next two weeks.” The owner had no way of saying no, since under the guise of “security” he has no legal recourse to stop the Israeli army from moving into his hotel. Moreover, he is not the first hotel owner in Bethlehem to suffer damage to his property, since occupying hotels, shelling them, burning them, and stealing their contents by the Israeli army has become the norm rather than the exception in Bethlehem. I kept thinking about my father and his hotel, The Bethlehem Inn, who has been occupied since the beginning of the Second Intifada, with no legal recourse for us whatsoever to get the Israeli army out of our property.
All of this was happening, while my friend and I were still watching from the veranda. Suddenly, one young soldier spotted us from across the street and started motioning violently with his left hand, while keeping his right one on the trigger. “Go inside,” he ordered in hysterical broken English. Inside! I am already inside! It took me a few seconds to understand that this young soldier was redefining inside to mean anything that is not visible, to him at least. My being “outside” within the “inside” was bothering him. Not only is he imposing a curfew on me, he is also redefining what is outside and what is inside within my own private sphere. Thinking back to why this soldier wanted me to go “inside,” there are many reasons why. It could be that his male ego was offended that I was not scared enough of him to run inside and hide. Yet, it could be because he was ashamed to be seen trespassing on the property of powerless people, or because he did not want any witnesses to what he and his friends were about to do.
Whatever the reason was, I tried to retain my self-control, took another sip of coffee and ignored him. He would not go away. He screamed again, louder this time “Go inside, I tell you.” Now, no one tells me what to do, least of all a kid with a gun trying to pretend to be a man. I mustered my most authoritative voice, wagged my finger at him, as one does for misbehaving little children, and told him “You go home. I am in the right place. You are not.” It worked. He stood still for a moment, said something to a fellow soldier standing next to him, and went on with the business of trespassing on our space. Not long after that, the head of another soldier, wearing dark sunglasses, suddenly appeared from an opening in the roof of one of the parked Armored Vehicles. He looked around, spotted us on the veranda, and screamed something at us in Hebrew. Please God, not another brat, I am thinking. I poured more coffee, took a sip, and continued talking. He screamed again and I continued drinking. Ignoring him must have made him angry, since he went back inside and brought out a gun twice as large as the ones that the other Israeli soldiers had. He pointed the gun at me. I was scared, but I took another sip of coffee and remained in my seat. He moved the gun about 90 degrees and then pointed it at me again. My heart beating a bit faster, I took another sip of coffee and remained seated. My friend was getting nervous and somewhat hysterical telling me to move inside, since my life is not worth much to this soldier. I had to think very fast, and decided that stubbornness to prove a point was not the best tactic to follow in this case. I moved inside.
Now, wanting to go home became a problem. How was I supposed to leave my friend’s house, with all of these trigger-happy Israeli soldiers in the street? All of a sudden, the whole neighborhood became responsible for trying to get me home as soon as possible and as safely as possible. The women, in their housecoats, stood by their windows and kept watch. One woman called my friend and said that the soldier at the door looks distracted by things that must be happening inside the hotel. She told my friend that I should go down and wait for her to tell me when he turns again so that I can run out in the opposite direction across the back yard and into the back street, where I can go home from there. I waited in the stairway for 10 minutes, the longest 10 minutes in my life, and then I heard her saying “go.” I ran like I never did in my whole life. My heart was beating hard and fast, and it was not all the caffeine’s doing. Needless to say, I still drink coffee. But I wonder every time I drink a cup whose coffee this Israeli young soldier is spoiling now.
Dr. Nuha Khoury, is the Deputy Director of Dar al-Kalima Academy in Bethlehem (www.annadwa.org). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.