"A Season in Bethlehem" by Joshua Hammer

April 2002, the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Palestinians inside, Israelis outside. It was a gripping 39-day standoff that seemed to symbolize the entire Middle East conflict.


Christopher Farah
October 28, 2003 2:00AM (UTC)

The siege of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, took place a year and a half ago, in April 2002. The standoff between the dozens of Palestinian militants taking refuge inside the church and the Israeli military forces surrounding the compound lasted 39 days.

Thirty-nine days. Just a footnote, really, in a history of Palestinian and Israeli grievances and countergrievances that spans more than three years since the start of the al-Aqsa intifada, more than 50 years since the founding of Israel, more than a century since the first Zionists came from Russia to settle in the Holy Land.

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Yet there was something about the siege that makes it just as relevant now as it was the day it was finally resolved. It was a microcosm for years of struggle that unfolded in real time as we watched on television or followed it in the newspapers. Very rarely does such a brief moment seem to embody so completely the overwhelming scope of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even rarer is the book that, by helping us to understand the minute dynamics of an event like the siege, actually expands our understanding of the forces that drive the conflict as a whole.

At its best points, this is exactly what Joshua Hammer's new book, "A Season in Bethlehem," accomplishes. Taking us behind the church's protective walls and well beyond what we saw on TV or read in the press, Hammer's account of the siege thrusts us into the heart of the action -- the clashing egos, the tense negotiations, the dwindling supplies of food, patience and sanity -- and into the heart of what makes Israeli-Palestinian relations so frustrating and so hopeless.

By using a slice of history to illustrate the conflict as a whole, "A Season in Bethlehem" follows in the tradition of another impressive piece of reportage, Tom Segev's "1949, The First Israelis," which examined a single watershed year -- immediately following the birth of Israel -- to illuminate the significance of many years of war and struggle. While Hammer's book may lack the impressive historical research and narrative sophistication of "1949," it makes up for these limitations by doing what it does best: focusing on the intricate drama of the siege itself, painting a picture of the action so complete it seems at times as if Hammer -- who is Newsweek's Middle East correspondent -- must have been locked in the church himself.

To move the narrative along, Hammer keeps track of a few principal characters inside and outside the Church of the Nativity. Inside, there's Ibrahim Abayat, the leader of the Bethlehem wing of the Palestinian militant group the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade; Chris Bandak, his Christian friend and underling; Mohammed al-Madani, the governor of Bethlehem; Omar Habib, a young resident of the city who was unlucky enough to get trapped in the compound; and Father Parthenius, a Greek Orthodox priest. Outside, there's Mike Aviad, an Israeli army reservist, and Leor Littan, the chief Israeli negotiator. The gaggle of characters can get confusing -- in fact, I spared you the names of several people who also played a significant role. But the crowded cast is necessary, because each individual represents a different element of the Palestinian and Israeli societies stuck in their seemingly eternal tango.

Abayat, the militant, forces his way with his men into the church to hide from an Israeli military onslaught launched in response to the increasingly violent Palestinian uprising, then nearly two years old. At first, Abayat is arrogant and defiant, sparked by the same anger that drove his attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers. He refuses to accept any compromise, anything less than total freedom. As the days pass, though, food supplies dwindle to nothing, and the church walls start to feel more and more like those of a cage, not those of a sanctuary. His resolve weakens. Once resigned to the fate of a martyr -- death at the hands of the Israeli enemy -- he finally accepts banishment from his home in the West Bank, the ultimate humiliation for a Palestinian.

It's easy to take Abayat's case and extrapolate, to use him as a metaphor for all Palestinian militants and perhaps to conclude that the only way for Israel to stop them is to defeat them utterly -- starve them, break their spirits, remove them from the land. But Hammer reveals that the situation of the siege, and likewise of the conflict as a whole, is far more complex, and its solution far from simple.

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As he remains trapped with the militants, Father Parthenius -- who once loathed the extremists who made life for the average people of Bethlehem so difficult -- starts to empathize with them. Parthenius is not himself Palestinian, but by the end of the siege he identifies with men whom Israel has labeled terrorists, and with their cause. Then there's the boy, Omar Habib, who goes to a good school, his future full of potential. By the time he wins his release from the church, though, he is fed up both with the militants, who don't want him to leave, and with the Israeli military, which has tried its best to starve him. In the aftermath of the siege, his resentment threatens to push him in the direction of the militant groups, following some of his brothers who made the same decision.

There is no easy answer for ending the siege, just as there is no easy answer to ending the years of animosity between Palestinians and Israelis. Hammer uses the characters to brilliantly depict the divisions and strains -- the plurality -- of Palestinian society that are so often overlooked by outside observers.

Each person, in the transformation he undergoes during the siege, becomes a living symbol for a different facet of society. The structure of the church embodies the experience of life in the West Bank or Gaza, territories whose borders are controlled entirely by a foreign power: feelings of being stuck, trapped in cramped quarters with limited resources at your disposal, finding yourself forced to form alliances with people you would normally hate, even as you fight your best friend over a last scrap of bread. Wanting to escape just as much as you wish you could hold on.

Of course, the potential problem with treating individuals as universals, as metaphors, is that it becomes easy to lose track of their unique identities, what makes them three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood people. Hammer's characterizations do encounter this problem -- particularly when he deals with subjects with whom he has a hard time empathizing.

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By far the most "real" character in the book is one who plays no role in the siege itself. This is Samir Zedan, a Bethlehem Christian who serves as Hammer's translator -- and who also becomes Hammer's good friend. Zedan is portrayed as being warm, funny and industrious, if at times bigoted against Muslims and Christians from different sects. He has his fair share of good qualities and bad. In other words, he's human.

On the other hand, Ibrahim Abayat, who's held up as the quintessential militant, comes off as being less than human. Hammer does provide us with the extensive history of the Abayat clan, and it's a violent history indeed. But this mess of names and dates doesn't help us understand Abayat any better as a person. Granted, Hammer had more access to Zedan, his friend, than to the extremist, which undoubtedly made painting a picture of Zedan easier. But part of the problem seems to come from Hammer's own attitude about Palestinian militancy in general.

At the end of the book, Hammer visits Abayat in exile in Spain. Abayat is lonely, stripped of his bravado, perhaps even pitiable. Yet Hammer cannot get past Abayat's complicity in attacks on Israeli settlers. "In my mind, Ibrahim Abayat was a sociopath whom the intifada had elevated into a freedom fighter," he writes.

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Maybe. But it's impossible to ignore that Abayat's story is not an aberration. As Hammer himself notes, the vast majority of Palestinian society at the time supported the violent measures used by people like Abayat. Surely they're not all sociopaths. By automatically writing off Abayat's behavior to mental defect, Hammer squanders any chance at an honest evaluation of what lies at the roots of not only Abayat's militancy, but that of much of Palestinian society. What results is a flat characterization that makes for both weak journalism and weak storytelling.

What is even stranger, perhaps, is that the second-most underdeveloped character is Hammer himself. The book jacket emphasizes that this is a story of Bethlehem's disintegration "as witnessed by a reporter who was there from the beginning." In fact, we only really get to hear Hammer's perspective at the very end of the book. For some readers, Hammer's decision largely to exclude himself will be welcome -- after all, the book is about Bethlehem, right? Yet while I was reading this I couldn't help wondering what kind of impact -- emotionally, mentally, spiritually -- all these events were having on an American who had just arrived in the Holy Land. Perhaps a window into Hammer's soul would have added some valuable internal landscape to the narrative.

Likewise, readers looking for a nuanced portrait of Israeli society -- or the Israeli position in the siege -- may also be disappointed. While Hammer's book goes a long way in exploring the complexities of Palestinian life during the most recent intifada, only a few significant Israeli characters populate his book.

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The principal Israeli character, reservist Mike Aviad, is a former peacenik who just can't understand why the Palestinians reverted to using violence against the Israelis after the failure of Oslo. Aviad is a very sympathetic character, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But by focusing solely on Aviad, Hammer robs us of the kind of complex portrayal of Israeli society that he so masterfully provides of the Palestinian side. Even Israel has its fair share of militants -- and they arguably have just as large an impact on their nation as Palestinian extremists have on life in the West Bank and Gaza. You would never know that from reading Hammer's book.

On the other hand, some readers may also lament the fact that Hammer doesn't spend more time profiling Jewish victims of Palestinian violence, to better represent Israel's reasons for reoccupying Bethlehem in the first place.

Of course, in a book on the Middle East, it's impossible to make everybody happy. Personally, I think the condition of the Palestinians stuck in the church during the siege is just as much an allegory for life in Israel proper as for life in the territories. Israelis also tend to feel trapped in their own homes, surrounded on all sides by a relentless enemy. What's remarkable is just how similar the two experiences are, how interchangeable the feelings of Palestinians and Israelis really can be -- both in this book and elsewhere.

Far too often, Americans who follow events in the Middle East oversimplify life there. Israelis and Palestinians become mere symbols of monolithic entities, figments of our own imagination and our need to see the world in terms of black and white, good and evil. Palestinians are either terrorists or victims; Israelis are imperialists or innocent civilians. Though not perfect, "A Season in Bethlehem," with its in-depth depiction of a single panel of the broad and bloody tapestry of the conflict, brings us much closer to the complex reality of life in the Holy Land.

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Christopher Farah

Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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