- On the streets of Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers and West
Bank Palestinians caught up in the same dehumanising spiral of violence
talk about their plight...
- We met the Israeli soldiers in a little square not far
from the Lutheran church in Bethlehem's old quarter. We were walking to
the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, where 200 Palestinians, including
scores of gunmen, are trapped in the church built on the reputed site of
Jesus's birthplace, when they stopped us.
- As we waited, a Palestinian sniper's round cracked in
the street. The soldiers quickly took cover, pointing their weapons from
behind street corners built of honey-coloured stone. No second shot came
in, so the soldiers started to relax. They seemed happy to talk briefly
among the rubble, as water poured from smashed pipes down the street, but
they refused to give their names.
- It was the Major who broke the ice, a short and stocky
man with a grizzle of dark stubble on his face. He told us he had been
in the city for five days. He worked for a hi-tech company in civilian
life. He was 34 and like most of his company a reservist, called up for
emergency military service a week ago on Friday.
- He was in Washington when the call came, preparing to
celebrate Passover with members of his family. He paid with his own money
to fly back for military service.
- We asked if Israel could win its war on the West Bank.
The Major shrugged his shoulders. 'I don't know,' he said with surprising
honesty. 'I do not want to be here. It does not feel safe. But they are
killing our people so I have to be here. I feel I should be doing something.'
- He turned to questioning me: 'What would you do in our
circumstances,' he asked. 'What would you do if every day they were bombing
your coffee shops in London, if the shops were empty, if you were afraid
for your young daughter to leave your building?'
- A colleague challenged him about the damage his comrades
had done; about the walls smashed to pieces by passing tanks, the shop
doors blown open, the contents scattered broken on the floor.
- 'Do you think,' he asked, 'that the tanks should not
be here? Do you understand why we have brought our tanks into these streets?'
- But what about the ruined and apparently looted shops
we had passed along the street? 'We are searching for weapons. We are working
in a hurry. You cannot do that without making a mess.'
- He paused for a moment. 'I heard something on television
the other day,' he said. 'Someone was saying that the Oslo peace agreement
meant we should be able to have a cup of coffee in Baghdad. Instead it
has turned out that we cannot even have a cup of coffee in Tel Aviv.'
- A second soldier walked over to talk to us. He was young
and tanned with a floppy mop of hair under his helmet. He was 24. He told
us he was a shift manager at a Tel Aviv coffee shop that was hit by a suicide
bomber eight days ago, killing one person inside. Normally, he would have
been inside, but he was called up for reserve duty 24 hours before.
- He gave the impression he did not much want to be in
Bethlehem but, like his colleague, explained that Israel was under attack.
- 'I tell you, we have found a whole exhibition of weapons
searching these houses,' he said. 'I can only tell you what our company
has found, but we have uncovered a machine gun, rifles, pistols, shotguns,
explosives and hundreds of Molotov cocktails.
- 'We find them really well hidden. We have found them
in beds, hidden in children's rooms, in cellars with locked doors that
do not look as though they have been touched for 30 years.'
- As if on cue, we heard their colleagues shouting down
the street: a few minutes later these soldiers brought in two Palestinian
men carrying two ammunition boxes which the soldiers told us they found
in the basement of the building in which the Palestinians live.
- We were allowed to speak to them for a moment. The older
man gave his name as Ahmad Abu Subeih, the younger - in his twenties -
as Osmama Masalma. 'The soldiers found ammunition in the cellar,' said
the older man. 'But it is not mine. I do not know who it belongs to. I
live in the floor above.'
- The Major shrugged. 'He could be telling the truth. I
don't know. But we are going to take them in for questioning.'
- A few hours earlier, in another town, we had met some
Palestinian soldiers. In a week of covering the fighting these men were
a rarity - the only Palestinian policemen or soldiers we had seen in uniform
who were not prisoners or bullet-riddled corpses.
- We found them standing at a check point on the back road
that leads into the city of Hebron from the road to the settlement at Kiryat
Arba. Like the Israelis, they were happy to talk.
- They said their names were Mohamed Ashour, 24, and Manar
Abu Hussein. Their position, a breeze-block hut, was overlooked at a distance
by a substantial Israeli blockhouse site on a nearby hill.
- I asked Mohamed, the more assured of the two, what he
would do if the Israelis came into his city as it was rumoured they were
about to do. He said he was not frightened, but that he would 'do a little
something' before running for his house.
- What were his orders, we asked? 'They say we should avoid
a fight and go home and hide our weapons and take off our uniforms,' he
said without embarrassment. He had been a soldier for two years in the
Palestine Preventative Security Force. He did not look so happy with his
- As we entered Hebron we heard from MÈdecins Sans
FrontiËres of panic in the city. 'Everyone is expecting a large-scale
occupation,' said Jimena Cabana, a young Spaniard working for the charity.
'We have seen panic-buying of food and medicines. All the food shops are
empty. The hospital has drawn up an emergency plan to deal with the casualties.
It is as if the city has been overtaken by some kind of psychosis.
- 'This week alone we have been forced to send our local
staff back to their houses on two occasions because we were expecting an
invasion of Israeli tanks.'
- The story of the past nine days has been the story of
two communities under siege. For all the carnage of the spate of deadly
Palestinian suicide bombings, for most Israelis the siege is - as terrorism
always intends - largely psychological.
- And recent opinion polls reflect the view of the Major.
Among Israelis the campaign enjoyed overwhelming support. A poll in the
Jerusalem Post said 72 per cent of Israelis backed the war, while barely
17 per cent opposed it. The poll reflects a hardening of attitudes among
Israels over the question of Yasser Arafat and any future Palestinian state,
with more and more Israelis saying openly that they feel Arafat should
- For the Palestinians too it is a siege, but in the West
Bank last week that siege was very physical.
- More than a million Palestinians in half a dozen cities
are now under renewed Israeli occupation. On Friday in Bethlehem the meaning
of that siege was articulated by Senator Jean-Marie Dedecker, a Belgian
parliamentarian, turned back from an attempt to reach Manger Square.
- 'When we tried to reach the square the soldiers came
up to us and said that if we did not leave then they would shoot us. We
wanted to go into the church and talk to those trapped there but we were
told there was no chance.
- 'It is terrible - horrible - what is going on here; they
are not only killing people with guns they are starving them and strangling
their society. It is not a war against terrorism, it is a war against people.
This is war about who has the biggest muscles. They are making a concentration
camp out of the West Bank - it is a hard word - but they are are destroying
everything, the economy and the infrastructure.'
- It is a tough analysis. But it is not the only time I
have heard this from independent observers. A day earlier I had spent some
time with Ola Skuterud, of the International Federation of Red Cross and
Red Crescent Societies. Skuterud has been working in Ramallah. He too believes
the offensive is as much to punish the Palestinians as to root out the
terrorists among them.
- 'We have had four of our ambulances destroyed this week
and a vehicle owned by the International Committee for the Red Cross deliberately
crushed by a tank in Tulkarm.
- 'My analysis of what I have seen is that the Israelis
are not trying to kill as many people as possible. Rather they are being
careful to do the opposite, which is why we do not have hundreds of people
dead. What they are doing is targeting the infrastructure of Yasser Arafat
and the Palestinian Authority and ambulances come under that heading. They
are turning cars upside down, digging up roads, running into the houses,
blowing doors and wrecking water pipes and electricity cables. They are
destroying for the sake of destroying.'
- The reality is that both sides in their anger are in
danger of utterly dehumanising the other as they lurch deeper into their
- For Israelis of all political persuasions, all Palestinians
are now seen as a threat and as the enemy. This is reflected in the myopia
of the Major and his friend who, one suspects from the briefest of encounters,
are decent men who cannot see that terrorising entire neighbourhoods to
find a handful of gunmen might leave them open to criticism.
- The Palestinians of all kinds too have become locked
in the same cycle. A similar myopia means they cannot see how repulsive
the suicide bombers so many lionise are to ordinary sensibilities, or how
they undermine the case for their own state.
- In the same way as the Israelis cannot see there are
more effective ways of dealing with terrorism by a process of political
negotiation, the Palestinians have become locked into the idea that the
only way to achieve a state is by armed struggle and the most nihilistic
kinds of violence.
- Both are redundant. Both exacerbate the violence, driving
the two communities ever further apart.
- That process of dehumanisation was dramatised by a conversation
with a Palestinian I encountered on the streets of Bethlehem. Michel Nasser,
a portly middle-aged man, was walking in his dressing gown and slippers,
emboldened by the presence of reporters to leave his house to look for
- 'This is the first time I have seen the light in five
days,' he said. 'We have food but we have had no water for five days. We
are not terrorists. Yes, there are gunmen living among us. But that is
a minority. It is not the whole population, to punish us like this.
- 'You know, when the Israeli soldiers were fighting here
last autumn they came into our streets and they spoke like people. We understood
them as men like other men. Now they are worse than the terrorists.'