Bloody Bethlehem

As wounded Palestinians hide in corpse-filled ambulances and militants bray defiance, Israel begins to withdraw from two Palestinian cities. But with hatred on both sides deeper than ever, does Powell's mission even have a chance?

By Ferry Biedermann
Published April 10, 2002 3:05AM (EDT)

"The ambulance smuggled me to the hospital under the bodies of three martyrs," says Elias Kanaan, a 53-year-old artisan from the old city of Bethlehem. He was wounded near the beginning of the Israeli incursion into the city, he says, when a soldier shot him while the army searched his brother's house. For two days he lay bleeding in the house while the soldiers denied ambulances access to evacuate the wounded. When they finally came it was only for the dead.

"They put the corpses on top of me, to hide me. One of them was without a head. It has given me nightmares," says Kanaan, sitting in his bloodstained clothes in a wheelchair in the Hussein Hospital in Beit Jala, on the edge of Bethlehem. The story is corroborated by Peter Qumri, the director of the hospital, where most of the dead and wounded have ended up. "We were only finally given permission by the Israelis to get the dead, so we hid four of the wounded that were in the same area under the corpses and got them out. Two are still in intensive care. At least one man died because he couldn't get treatment. He bled to death."

The situation at the hospital, the main general medical facility in the area, is also critical, says Qumri. He recently received supplies that are stacked up in the lobby, but stocks of drugs are still "below the red lines." Patients last week had to go without breakfast for three days because of lack of food, says the director.

As Israel continues its massive military operations in the West Bank, these kind of stories are inflaming Palestinian and Arab public opinion, as well as tempers farther afield. Major demonstrations against Israel and the United States, which initially gave the Jewish state the green light for the attack before reversing course, have taken place around the world. The U.S. administration, aware of the deteriorating diplomatic and political situation, seems finally to be serious about getting Israel to wrap up its offensive. "I meant what I said to the prime minister of Israel. I expect there to be withdrawal without delay," said a clearly agitated Bush while touring Tennessee. He sent the U.S. mediator, Gen. Zinni, to Sharon on Monday night to emphasize that message. And Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Morocco on the first leg of a Middle East tour that will take him to Israel at the end of the week, demanded "a clear statement from Israel that they are beginning to withdraw" from Palestinian territories and that they "do it now."

In the evening, Israel finally started to comply, with reports that troops were withdrawing from two towns, Qalqilya and Tulkarem, where the fighting had been limited. In other cities the Israeli operations continued, though.

Powell warned Israel in thinly veiled terms that it was damaging American interests in the Arab world. "The strategic problems that are created by the continuing operation are rather significant and severe when you see what's happening throughout the rest of the Middle East," said the secretary of state, after repeating the U.S. position that Israel had the right to defend itself after the bloody suicide attacks last month. He received a frosty reception in Morocco, where on Sunday about a million people had filled the streets of Rabat to protest the Israeli actions. King Mohammad pointedly asked him why he had not gone first to Jerusalem -- echoing charges by Palestinians and others that Powell's trip was timed so as to allow Sharon a few extra days to smash the Palestinians.

While heavy fighting rocked Nablus and Jenin in the northern West Bank and a skirmish broke out at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the holiest sites in Christendom, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday addressed the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and said the troops still had a job to do in the territories. "These missions have not been completed yet, and the army will continue operating as quickly as possible until the mission has been completed, until it has dismantled Arafat's terror infrastructure and until the murderers hiding in different places have been arrested," Sharon said, setting his nation on a seeming collision course with the U.S. Israeli officials have said it would take at least a month for the 11-day-old operation to succeed in destroying the "terrorist infrastructures." He also said the army would remain in position in so-called buffer zones after a withdrawal and "the places we leave must have a responsible Palestinian leadership that will take over the areas."

Considering that Israel has just destroyed most of the Palestinian Authority infrastructure and has been keeping Yasser Arafat in isolation, that last condition may be the hardest to meet. The bitter fighting, the reported brutality of the Israeli practices in the cities they occupy and the targeting of the PA leadership make the prospect for political progress after a pullout increasingly bleak. Palestinian commanders openly say that their organizations have not yet been broken and they will strike back. The level of hatred has gone up several notches. It is difficult to see how Arafat can be seen to give in to U.S. and Israeli demands to rein in the militants. Bush has not made it easier for Arafat by repeatedly insulting the Palestinian leader, saying that he "betrayed" his people, laying the lion's share of the blame for the current situation on him and refusing to meet with him. But even if Arafat does attempt to call off terrorist attacks, the anger over the military offensive is such that he will probably be ignored.

In short, the peace mission of Powell seems hopeless before it has even started.

"Powell thought he could come here to witness the burial of the Palestinian Authority and Arafat as a leader, but he is mistaken. We'll never let that happen," said Hussam Khader, a senior leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in the northern West Bank and closely involved with its lethal militia, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. His own house in the Balata refugee quarter of Nablus was nearly destroyed by missiles that landed right next to it, he said in a phone interview. "My little daughter Amira was so shocked that she still won't speak, and we can't get her to a doctor."

The Fatah leader sharply attacked the U.S. for sending Powell to Israel only at the end of the week, "buying time for Sharon to do what he is doing to us." He warned the U.S. not to try to get rid of Yasser Arafat. "They want to impose a Palestinian Karzai on us," he said, referring to the new Afghan leader. If Powell would not meet with Arafat, he said ominously, no other Palestinian should try to. "We warn those collaborators who think they can be leaders, we will shoot them."

On Monday, Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the BBC that Powell would be allowed to meet with Arafat, probably in his Ramallah headquarters, where he has been confined for the last 11 days.

Khader dismisses the gains the army claims to have made, especially in Nablus, where it says that huge arms manufacturing plants and explosives labs have been uncovered. "A few labs and a few weapons don't mean anything to us. They haven't broken our structure and they will not be able to do it." A report of the death of a high-ranking Al-Aqsa commander, Nasser Awais, he treats more seriously. "If it is true, it is a catastrophe, but it will not stop us; another 1,000 Nassers will rise up." Khader says the offensive has created many more volunteers for operations against Israel and that they will continue, although he denies any direct link to the people who carry them out.

Nablus is one of the cities that have been heaviest hit by the fighting. In the old Casbah, where Israeli tanks and helicopters have fired missiles and shells at militants holed up there, dozens of people have died. Israel says it is in control of the Casbah now. The Jenin refugee camp has been the scene of heavy fighting, too, with the Palestinians saying hundreds have been killed, including many civilians, a claim the Israelis deny.

But other reports of human rights abuses are proliferating. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and local Medical Relief services have complained that they are being obstructed in their work and in some cases attacked. Israel claims, with some evidence, that Palestinian ambulances have been used for terrorist purposes. It also says it is merely keeping the ambulances and the crews out of battle zones for their own protection. But in either case, the explanations seem hard to credit: If ambulances are deadly terrorist tools, why allow them to carry the dead but not the living? The respected Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem says that it has reports that some of the more than 2,000 Palestinians who have been taken into custody have been tortured. It has also received information about civilians being used as human shields by soldiers.

But the press is hardly in a position to investigate these cases, since reporters are being kept out of the combat areas. The ones who are stuck there have been intimidated and in some instances fired at by the army, as documented by Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom group. The army has denied the allegations, saying some occurrences are the inevitable side effects of war and blaming other incidents on individual soldiers.

Monday offered a rare glimpse into life in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, when the army lifted the curfew for a few hours. Tanks remained in position at the important junctions, and armored personnel carries patrolled the streets. A terrified population tried to weave around the armor and quickly get some shopping done before they were to be imprisoned in their own home once again. It was the second lifting of the curfew in eight days. The first time, though, many people didn't dare to venture out because of the continuing shooting.

On Monday, too, the dry cracks of Palestinian Kalashnikov rifles and the rattle of Israeli machine guns echoed over Bethlehem. In one street where a crowd of desperate shoppers tried to stock up on some badly needed foodstuffs, an armored personnel carrier fired off several rounds into the air, trying to clear the road. The tense crowd hastily jumped out of the way, seeking cover from the APCs. "The bastards," muttered one man, "they tell us it is safe to come out and buy some food and then they keep shooting."

At a grocery store some 200 yards behind the Church of the Nativity, people mostly make do with rice, pasta, sugar and some tins. "We don't have bread, milk, meat, fish, flour and vegetables," says an assistant, "haven't had it for about a week now." People don't have much money either, the banks being closed and the economic situation being desperate. "We sometimes give credit," the assistant says. Many just stock up on coffee and cigarettes to get through the anticipated long wait until the troops finally leave.

"We've lived on bread, olives and tins of sardines," says one of the shoppers, a middle-aged man who says his family stayed indoors out of fear of the troops. "We lead a simple life anyway, not like in the West." He explains that they bake bread at home, but now there's no flour to be found. The refrigerator is not working because the electricity has been cut off so nothing can be kept, even if meat was on sale. "But it is worst for the kids, it's like a prison for them. There's nothing, not even TV."

Electricity and water are sometimes nonexistent, especially in the old city of Bethlehem, where the heaviest fighting has raged and where several hundred Palestinians, including wanted militants, are still holed up in the Church of the Nativity, surrounded by Israeli soldiers. The people in the very center of town are not allowed to go out, even during the break in the curfew. One resident of the neighborhood immediately behind the church says he has no clue what is going on there. "If I look out of my window, I can get shot by the soldiers. I tell my whole family to keep well away."

On Monday there were new reports of clashes at the church. The army is said to have fired at the Franciscan compound next to the main basilica, and a fire has broken out. A spokesman for the Franciscans in Rome called it "an act of indescribable barbarism" on the part of the Israelis. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Vatican was following events "with extreme apprehension." The army says its soldiers were fired upon from the complex first and they only responded. In the afternoon the sky above the church is clear again.

Bethlehem mayor Hanna Nasser describes the damage to the downtown area over the phone. "All the infrastructure is gone. Water mains, electricity, street lamps, street furniture, the streets themselves, shops, everything. How are we ever going to repair it -- we hardly even had money for salaries as it was," he says, sighing. Nasser disputes that the destruction had anything to do with the Israeli fight against militants. "Why did they have to destroy the shops? Are there militants in every shop?" He thinks the Israeli intention is to humiliate the Palestinians and make them desperate "so that we will leave or give up, but we'll never do either."

He is in touch with the people inside the Church of the Nativity, but he says they cannot be persuaded to come out and give themselves up. "Who can ask that of them? They know that it means death to fall into Israeli hands." He admits that there are militants among the people who have sought refuge in the church. Nasser rejects the notion that he and other PA officials could have done more to prevent the entire escalation by keeping the militants from operating out of Bethlehem. "Here in Bethlehem all the buildings of the PA are destroyed, police stations, jails, barracks, everything. How are we supposed to act then? But even when we succeeded, the Israelis would do something to provoke a reaction again."

On Monday afternoon, Bethlehem is rife with rumors of an impending attack on the Church of the Nativity. Some people think the militants should just come out and make a stand. Says one man; "I'm disappointed in our fighters. In Jenin and Nablus they put up a struggle. Here they immediately fled into the church."

Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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