National Catholic Register


Battleground Bethlehem

Christians got caught in the crossfire

BY Michele Chabin

November 04-11, 2001 Issue | Posted 11/4/01 at 1:00 PM


BETHLEHEM, West Bank—On Oct. 18, the Israeli army burst into Bethlehem in search of Palestinian militants who had committed violent acts against Israeli soldiers and civilians. The incursion into the birthplace of Jesus came one day after Palestinian gunmen assassinated Rahavam Zeevi, Israel's ultra-right wing tourism minister.

In the days following the Israeli invasion, the 60 children residing at the Holy Family Hospital orphanage in the western part of the town lived in a state of constant fear.

“They have been terribly afraid,” said the orphanage's secretary, who gave his name as George. “The other day they saw helicopters shooting missiles, and for the last couple of days the shooting hasn't stopped. The children have become overexcited and often cry. Some say, ‘They're coming to shoot us.’ They have trouble sleeping at night.”

Like many Christian institutions in Bethlehem, and nearby Beit Sahur and Beit Jala, the orphanage and maternity hospital found themselves literally caught in the crossfire between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen.

Run by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the complex, which includes a convent, suddenly found itself next to an Israeli tank encampment.

During the first week of gunfights and shelling, the windows of the neonatal intensive care unit and lobby were shattered. A shell also penetrated a window of the church.

George insisted that Palestinian gunmen “are not shooting from the hospital, but they are shooting from the streets around it. We're surrounded by streets on the east, west, north and south. It's a Palestinian area and anyone who wants to defend his country against occupation must fight from this area.”

Brother Vincent Malham, president of Bethlehem University, said that his campus has been badly damaged by Israeli troops.

“Their tanks have been as close as a block away. We've had close to 100 windows broken, including five stained-glass windows in our chapel that I don't know how we'll replace. The Brothers’ residence has been hit by 110 bullets. Our midwifery lab has been damaged, as has the old Arabic mansion on the premises. Our water and electrical supplies have been affected.”

Brother Vincent, one of 12 De la Salle Christian Brothers who run the university, acknowledged that “there has been incitement by some of the Palestinians shooting small weapons that do very little damage. There has been activity in our neighborhood.”

To protect students and teachers, the university closed its gates when Israeli tanks arrived.

The university president said that he had “augmented” the number of security guards on campus to prevent Palestinian gunmen from taking up positions there. During the past year, militants armed with guns and mortars have fired on the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo, on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, from the rooftops of Muslim and Christian homes in Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem.

“We've gone to great lengths to keep outsiders off our campus,” Brother Vincent said. “We don't want to risk Israeli retaliation.” The university is particularly vulnerable, he added, “because we're located at one of the highest points in Bethlehem.”

Brother Vincent expressed anger at Israel for repeatedly hitting the university, despite the fact that it has striven to remain neutral in the conflict.

“What's baffled and angered and disappointed us is the extent to which Israel has pummeled the university,” he said. “Yes, they are responding to [Palestinian] shooting but why damage a place that is not in this at all? Israel is occupying this land illegally, and all the excuses in the world don't hold water.”

Israeli officials insisted that the army had no choice but to re-enter Palestinian towns and cities it had relinquished under the Oslo Peace Accords, due to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's failure to imprison the militants Israel regards as terrorists.

The Israeli government withdrew its forces from Bethlehem and Beit Jala Oct. 29, after no violence was reported in either community the previous day, CNN reported. But Rannan Gasson, an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that the withdrawal was only a “test case” to see if peace could be preserved without the presence of Israeli troops, which remained in place in four other Palestinian communities occupied after the assassination of Zeevi.

Emanuel Nahshon, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, insisted that Palestinian gunmen have intentionally taken up positions at or near Christian institutions and holy sites, in the hope that the army's retaliatory strikes would damage Christian property.

Speaking Oct. 24, Nahshon said, “There is a cynical and deliberate use of Christian holy places by Palestinian militias in order to shoot against Israelis. This is done deliberately in order to provoke an Israeli reaction, which would somehow put the Christian world at odds with Israel,” Ecumenical News International reported.

While acknowledging that some Christian civilians have been killed in the fray, and that some church property may have been damaged, Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman, asserted that soldiers “are under strict orders never to fire at a church or a mosque, even when fired upon. There have been many instances where Palestinians used a church or mosque to shoot at Israelis.”

As the fighting raged on, Christian leaders utilized diplomatic channels—urging Israeli and Palestinian officials to abide by their signed agreements—and other means to try to put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and for all.

Peace March

On Oct. 23, almost 1,000 Christian clergy and laymen marched from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to pray for peace in the Holy Land.

As the demonstrators, accompanied by a few Muslim leaders, proceeded, they were honored by the fighters in the front line. Israeli soldiers briefly left their posts, tanks moved aside and Palestinian gunmen laid down their guns for a few hours during the Oct. 23 procession.

“God of peace, give our land peace,” sang thousands of Palestinians, who joined the march.

The papal nuncio to Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, who led the procession, said the marchers did not mean to take sides in the conflict but only to appeal for the fighting to end.

“It is a demonstration against violence and wars and in favor of peace, just peace, which is the best for the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he said.

In contrast, local Church leaders, the vast majority of whom are Palestinians, accused Israel, and only Israel, of fanning the flames of war.

In a message to the faithful penned immediately after the latest Israeli incursion, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah said, “In our Holy Land the element that opens the gates to death is the military occupation.” Addressing the Israeli people, the patriarch said, “It depends on your government to put an end to the occupation that has been pressing upon the Palestinians [for] decades, depriving them of their dignity and liberty.”

Father Raed Abusahlia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, said that the latest Israeli occupation had caused the Palestinian people “intense misery, and not just in the Bethlehem area.”

“It is like a battlefield,” he said. “Hospitals have been shelled, people can't go to work or to school. Houses have been damaged, destroyed. The stores are closed. People can't go out and get food. There are no tourists, which is a huge blow because most of the Christians here make their living through tourism.”

Father Abusahlia, an outspoken Palestinian nationalist and one of the organizers of the peace march to Bethlehem, said that Palestinians have a right to fight for independence using whatever means necessary.

“When Israeli tanks arrived in front of our seminary in Beit Jala, the Palestinian resistance fired on the tank,” said Father Abusahlia. “People have a right to defend themselves against occupation.” The gunmen, he added, “are our soldiers, even Hamas and Islamic Jihad—they have the right to defend their people.”

The United States has long considered Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations.

Referring to the U.S. war on terrorism in Afghanistan, Father Abusahlia said that “if you want world peace, you have to end the Israeli occupation. The occupation is increasing hatred in the hearts of more than 1 billion Muslims.”

Arabs, and not only those of the Muslim faith, “view American foreign policy as arrogant,” he continued. “The Sept. 11 attacks were caused by the dirty, arrogant and immoral foreign policy of America. That is the feeling of the people on the street.”

The Pope's Plea

Upon hearing the news that a Christian teenager had been shot to death at Bethlehem's Manger Square—only one of several killings in recent days—Pope John Paul II made an impassioned plea for peace in the Middle East from St. Peter's Basilica on Oct. 21.

“In the name of God I repeat once again: For all,” he told an Angelus audience, “violence is only a way of death and destruction which dishonors the holiness of God and the dignity of man.”

Concluded the Holy Father, “To the families that are victims of violence, I express my closeness in sorrow, prayer, and hope. They have the gift of living in the land that is holy for Jews, Christians and Muslims. All must be determined to make it, finally, a land of peace and fraternity.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.