Inside the Church of the Nativity

An American activist who snuck past Israeli troops to deliver food says there's plenty of illness, very little food and absolutely no militants hiding inside.

Topics: Middle East,

Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has become the eye of the Middle East storm, with continued clashes between Israelis and Palestinians over the 200 people holed up there, even as Yasser Arafat made his way out of his newly liberated Ramallah compound and Israeli troops pull out of other West Bank cities. But amazingly on Thursday, 11 international pro-Palestinian activists managed to evade Israeli Defense Force roadblocks and gun-toting soldiers to enter the church and deliver food.

Late Thursday Salon spoke to Kristen Schurr, a member of the New York-based group Direct Action for Justice in Palestine, on one of her two cellphones just a few hours after she’d entered the church. Schurr, 33, described her group’s repeated attempts to enter the church during the standoff. Activists who didn’t make it in Thursday were arrested, she said.

As with everything else in the conflict, Israelis and Palestinians disagree over the situation inside the church. The Israelis say that in addition to Palestinian security personnel, church guards, civilians, peace activists and clergymen, there are gunmen and militants who are wanted by Israel in prior terror attacks. The militants, the Israelis claim, are holding at least some of the others hostage. The Palestinians deny that there are any hostages, and have proposed ending the siege by having the militants wanted by Israel brought to Jericho for trial. But Schurr, a dedicated pro-Palestinian activist, even denies there are any militants.

In a brief interview, Schurr blamed the standoff entirely on the Israelis. She’s exhausted from her ordeal, but still working hard to get the word out. During the conversation, she had to stop more than once to answer her other phone. At one point, she could be heard describing the situation to another caller, “… they didn’t even see us coming. I wish we could have brought more food. We brought what we could, but I wish we could have brought more. It’s OK. It’s not good, but people are surviving.”

How were you able to get in? The church is under intense military security.

Yes, we climbed over a barricade and through some barbed wire, and we divided into three groups. We had the element of surprise on our side. We just had bags of food and we just headed for the door and didn’t turn back when the soldiers were yelling at us to stop.

Were you shot at?

They shot after we got in. I’ve tried to get into the church with food and medical supplies for the past month at different points, and every time I’ve been shot at. Or they’ve shot warning shots. But this time I didn’t hear any and it may be that I wasn’t paying any attention, that I was just trying to get in, but I don’t think that’s true. I think they didn’t because there’s a great deal of media.

All around?

Yes, there are a bunch of media already inside of Manger Square right by a tank, so it had already gotten chaotic because they were there. What I have noticed is the last time I tried to get food into the church that the soldiers were very gentle with us, by comparison, because there was so much media there. When the corporate media is there with their cameras on, we get treated OK. I think it wouldn’t have done well if they’d shot a bunch of internationals in the back while trying to get into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with bags of food.

What’s the situation inside the church right now? What did you find when you arrived?

Well, 155 Palestinians had soup for lunch today made of leaves from a tree and water, and a pinch of salt. Several people are quite sick, ill, they haven’t gotten out of bed since I got here.

What is wrong with them?

There are blanket beds against the wall … I’m not positive on the specifics of what’s wrong with the people that are in here. I know that somebody who was bleeding from being shot by an Israeli sniper was able to be taken out by one of the clergy members, was able to put them into an ambulance, into a car, and be taken to the hospital. And another who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper this morning was also taken out.

What is your plan? Are you planning to stay in the church?

Yeah, we’re going to stay until the Israeli military lets the Palestinians out without killing them or arresting them.

The Israeli position is that they’re willing to let everyone but the militants go free.

Well, I’m not sure who they mean are militants.

The Israelis are claiming that there are a number of Palestinian militants in the church, people guilty of terror attacks.

There are no Palestinians of that nature in here. There are some Palestinian police and also some people who worked as guards for the Church of the Nativity, but as far as who’s doing the attacking, my position is absolutely that the Israelis attacked the Palestinians.

You’re saying that there are no Palestinian militants in the church?

Yes, that is my position. Militants, no. There are Israeli military surrounding the church.

The people that are in the church now are all civilians, some police?

Some police, some guards.

There are certain people in the church who the Israelis say are hostages, who they will let go free. Is that your understanding? That the Israelis will let certain people, hostages, go free?

No, actually, I’m an international civilian and the Israelis shoot at me. So, I don’t have the understanding that they’re letting any Palestinians do anything that is free.

But as far as people in the church, as I understand it, there are certain people in the church that the Israelis say are being held hostage.

That’s absolutely not true. I’m in here and clearly no one’s being held hostage. As far as people that walk out, they’re arrested or killed. The internationals who didn’t make it in have been arrested.

How can this situation be resolved, in your view?

What we’re hoping is that the international community will put pressure on the Israeli government to allow Palestinians to move freely throughout their lives, to stop occupying them, to stop requiring them to go through checkpoints in order to move from area to the next, and to allow them some freedom and dignity. And that they will move out of Bethlehem, that they will take their tanks out of here, get rid of their guns, get the Israeli soldiers out of Bethlehem and let these people live their lives. That’s what we’re hoping.

But didn’t Israel have to take some action, in light of the numerous suicide bombings on Israeli civilians?

Palestinian civilians are killed every single day by the Israeli military. Daily in the Gaza strip, particularly in the south, tanks shell, snipers shoot at kids, Apaches fly overhead in the West Bank, Israeli tanks surround towns, and fully occupy towns. I’d say as far as the death toll is concerned, Palestinians have lost many, many of their people … I’ve got another interview I’ve got to do now on the other phone.

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>