Bethlehem - Church Of The Nativity
Bristol based activist Jo Wilding sent in this communique shortly after her deportation from Palestine.... In it she tells of how she and a group of international solidarity colleagues managed to pass tanks, snipers and barbed wire to get food into the Church of the Nativity whilst it was still under Israeli siege. And what happened to them afterwards........
10th May 2002
My email inbox was full of desperate appeals for international observers and solidarity activists to go to Palestine, to escort ambulances and fire engines to where they were needed, because the Israeli army was shooting at them, to bear witness, to be in Gaza where an Israeli invasion was expected imminently. I asked myself where I wanted to be in all this. Would I look back on this time, where international solidarity was so desperately needed, and say I couldn't do anything, I had exams coming up. If I could make a difference just by being a foreign observer, how could I justify sitting on the sidelines?
Three of my mates decided to come with me and there it was... the Bristol posse: me, Kate, Marcia and Al. The tourist act got us through Tel Aviv airport without questions and we met up in the bus stop. We met a bloke called Jeff from southern California in a hostel near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem who asked if we wanted to go on a demo in Bethlehem tomorrow. Seemed like a plan.
8am, we went to a briefing. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, was to help break the month-long siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and get food and a team of international observers inside. The Israeli army had been shooting indiscriminately at the church ever since 26 people had been allowed to leave safely a few days earlier. Two parts had been set on fire by the army the night before and a man had been killed there that morning. The hope was that the killing would stop once there were internationals inside.
We travelled to Bethlehem via backroads to avoid checkpoints, switching vehicles from time to time, decamped and walked in small groups to be less obvious, clambering up a stony grass bank into a car park where a group of about thirty people from at least eight countries slowly assembled. Now and then we'd all duck our heads down when we heard a tank coming by, in between making signs, preparing bags of food, getting into groups, working out details and waiting for the verdicts of scouting parties.
Someone brought a bit of card and a marker pen and drew a map. "There's the church, there's the square, these are the alleyways we'll approach through. This is the barbed wire we'll have to go over. There's a tank here and another one here. There are snipers here, here, here, here and here." Oh. Not just security cameras then?
We stuffed toilet paper in our ears in case of stun grenades or sound bombs, which explode with an earsplitting and disorientating noise. We soaked scarves and hankies in case of gas. We were told if we were shot at they'd almost certainly be shooting over our heads, in front of us or at the ground, so under no circumstances should we run or get on the ground.
They only wanted five internationals to go in the church and they wanted all men because it was all men inside. We'd talked about whether we were up for going in and decided we were if we were needed; now that we couldn't, we wanted to more than anything. The rest of us will carry food and pass it in and shield the door so it can be opened without the Israelis being able to shoot into the church. Al was part of the team though, as the only male Brit. Half jealous, half relieved and quaking in my boots, I went with my group down through the alleyways, lined with posters of the martyrs, people killed in the intifada and occupation, carpeted with broken glass and splintered wood, partially blocked here and there with burnt out and bullet ridden vehicles, devoid of people, confined to their houses by the curfew.
I've never been so scared in my whole life. Perched on a step with Kate and Marcia, Trevor and the two Nathans. Feeling my pulse thundering through my temples. Trousers falling down... why didn't I sew a top button on them? Through the gap in the buildings, the famous juxtaposition of the cross on top of the Church and the crescent on top of the mosque. Walking out of the alleyway, into the wide square, tanks in front, the church ahead, a shout, no shots, a roll of barbed wire approaching, how am I going to get over it with out getting caught up? My hands are full. Walking though it, pulling my trousers along with me, walking as fast as my legs will go, ignoring the shouts, the backs of the people in front my only focus, dimly aware of a khaki man running, glancing across at him grabbing someone, can't see who, wrestling them down, walking faster, wanting to run, people ahead running, still no shots, running too.
Shield the door and the doors open and hands are reaching out, taking the food we're passing in, a woman pushes through into the church. That's not meant to happen, doesn't matter now, all the food bags are in. The door closes. We've done it. Walking away from the church. A quick hug of pure joy. "Faster. Come on." Israeli troops in front of us, blocking the way, linking arms, trying to push against the line. Pulled apart from each other, still clinging to Trevor's arm one side, bulldozed into a corner created by the Peace Centre and a load of cammo netting. Everyone else bundled into our corner with us, Jeff bleeding. Sitting down to resist being pushed inside the building. Clinging to each other, arms linked with Trevor, legs round Marcia, physically lifted from the ground and carried into the Peace Centre, dumped on the floor. Skulking in a corner hiding the dictaphone tape recording of the action in my pants.
Bizarrely, a khaki man says to Huwaida, "We're not at the University of Michigan now you know." At some point in some other life, they were both at the same college in the US, this Israeli soldier and this Palestinian-American activist.
The soldiers were unimpressed: "We were really close to a final solution and now you've ruined it."
Final solutions frighten me. There had been signs of an intent to storm the church and end the siege with an intense burst of violence, potentially the deaths of many of the refugees inside. Yeah, we ruined it, and amidst all the uncertainty of being detained by them, there was a defiant high which their fury only fed.
We were separated and asked to call the people in the church and tell them they had to come out. Apparently the Palestinians inside the church wanted the internationals to leave, but rather than simply ask them to go, they had asked the negotiators to ask the soldiers to ask us to ask them to leave. Yeah right.
After a while I climbed out of the window of the office I was locked in, reached up to the rafters above and swung myself onto the roof of the Peace Centre. I knew the trapeze training would come in handy one day. The stars looked amazing up there, the moon just past full, so much more real than the tanks surrounding it. There was nowhere to escape to and eventually they got me down.
Hands bound, we were put in a lorry and taken to the Bethlehem checkpoint. The women were taken out, tied hands and feet and put on the floor of a van. We were driven to the middle of nowhere and they opened the back doors. Bastards....they were going to dump us in the arse end of beyond at 2 in the morning, having taken all our ID and phones.
Ida, the Swedish woman nearest the door, had her bonds cut and got out. Kate moved up to the door but they slammed it. They were going to dump us one by one, single women without ID, when there were soldiers and checkpoints everywhere. In Israel they shoot people without ID. "You can't do that. She doesn't know where she is." The big clever soldier reached round and smacked Huwaida round the head. " Shut your mouth." We were told we could get our passports back at 24 Hillel St and to be there at 9am. I guess it was our English/US heads that took us back there. We couldn't get hold of our lawyer between 3am and 9 to get any advice but we were illegal without our passports. We were detained there....it was the Ministry of the Interior....and offered the choice of signing papers accepting deportation or being jailed.
We don't accept Israel's right to deport us from Palestine. We don't accept Israel's right to deport people bringing humanitarian aid. We don't accept Israeli's occupation of Bethlehem, therefore the 'closed military zone' we were accused of trespassing in wasn't legitimate. We were still being refused access to our lawyer, who was waiting outside the ministry building requesting entry. We'd still not been arrested or charged or given a formal reason for our detention or deportation.... nor were we at any point in our detention.
There were 6 of us being taken out to the prison van - four women and two men - and only three officials escorting us. Having already done a bunk from the Peace Centre, I was under closer watch. The van was at the side of the road. Ahead of me I saw Kate and Marcia casually stroll around the corner. It took a moment to dawn on my escort that they didn't need to walk around the corner, and he hurried his pace to look around the bend. His grip on my arm loosened as he realised that two English women had just melted into the Jerusalem sunshine. I seized the moment and legged it down the street. There was nowhere for me to go, but chasing me occupied four of five of them and they never spotted Kate and Marcia putting down the copy of " Run Lola, Run" and quietly walking out of Blockbuster Video. Again, the passport thing was the problem and they handed themselves in in the evening. Huwaida and I were taken to a deportation centre near the airport with Jeff and John; Kate and Marcia went to Abu Kibir jail and the other men were held at Kiryat Arba, an illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank town of Hebron.
Huwaida and I went on hunger strike, refusing both food and water, for several reasons: to protest against the deportation, in solidarity with the many Palestinians being starved in the Church and beyond, by the curfews which confine them to their houses, sometimes for days on end, and so that we'd be physically too weak to be deported when they tried to take us.
We'd managed to get the phone into the cell and were able to find out where everyone else was and that Trevor was also on hunger strike. The other three men held with him have since joined the hunger strike and three are now refusing water as well. Hunger strike was weird. In jail the guards tried to oppress us in lots of petty ways, like trying to stop us looking out of the window between the cells and having eye contact with the people in the next cell. Refusal to accept their bullying made us strong. Refusal of food and especially water began to scare them, once they realised after a couple of days that we couldn't walk unaided. On the fourth day they tried again to deport us and we refused to accept the papers. It was clear that we couldn't have flown and we were taken to another jail, Abu Kibir.
We were shackled together by the ankles, crossing the jail in a slow three legged shuffle. After just over 72 hours without water, every cell in our bodies craved it. My mouth tasted like a badger's arse, my legs were wobbly and crampy, my head felt like it does when you stand up too quick and my heart felt like a battering ram in an empty space.
They ordered us to stand by the screen for photos. We had to, it was the rules, they said. Your rules, not ours, we said. They pulled us, still chained at the ankles, onto the ground, slapped, kicked, stamped on our feet, pulled on my hair and poked fingers into my eyes to try and lift my head for a photo. Every ounce of strength and stubbornness left in me went into resisting and they left us in the end, lying on the ground, listening to the screaming coming from the next room. I have no idea who that woman was or what they were torturing her for, but her screams reminded me how lucky I was to be a foreigner and to get such mild treatment by comparison, and that knowledge gave me new strength.
The prison doctor who processed us said the jail couldn't accept us in our condition and we were shovelled back into the van for a visit to casualty. We refused IV treatment and were returned to the jail, where we again refused photos and fingerprints and this time they didn't force the issue. We managed to smuggle the phone in again, which was still the only contact we'd been able to have with our lawyer.
We were in a cell with a woman called Dalal, who was arrested along with two Palestinian-American doctors, Dr Riad and Dr Rushdie, bringing food and medical relief supplies to Palestinians. In the mornings the guards came and took Dalal out for questioning, bringing her back late at night. She said she could hear Dr Riad being beaten in the next room each day.
We three British women were forcibly deported on Tuesday evening, May 6th, and Huwaida left the next morning, with a letter saying she wasn't deported and was free to return. The same letter was promised to the four US lads still in jail, but the authorities went back on the promise and they're still in jail, still on hunger strike. In all honesty, the letter's not worth the shite you could wipe off your arse on it, but the Israeli minister of the interior refuses to give them access to a lawyer or to formalise their deportation papers, saying he has two weeks to do this in. As I write this, the siege at the Church is all but over. Some of the people inside are being exiled to Italy, some jailed in Gaza. Israel plans to arrest the internationals for trespassing in a closed military zone. But Israel stopped shooting indiscriminately into the church as soon as the internationals got in. No more lives were lost inside the church, though they shot dead a man who went into the courtyard to pick greenery for food - a father of 11.
There's an enormous amount more to say about the whole situation, about the desperate position of the Palestinian people who in their daily lives, even without the latest illegal invasions, are oppressed, humiliated and exiled by Israel, stopped at checkpoints going from home to work, stripped, beaten, detained for hours. There was a Palestinian woman in our cell in the deportation centre who had gone to live in the US and was refused entry at the airport to visit her mother and sister.
Our detention and deportation are only a small expression of what Palestinian people are forced to go through daily. It's not what happened to us that is the real outrage, but that a whole nation of people is forced to endure far worse every day and that people who attempt to act in solidarity with them, and to uphold international law, face jail and deportation.
A lot of the people who will read this are already involved, people who have inspired me to do what I do. To anyone who believes that they can't make a difference, let me tell you that you can. There were people in Palestine doing all kinds of work: writing, praying, giving medical assistance, watching, simply being there, helping people rebuild their homes and lives. You don't have to be brave, nor an expert in anything. Palestinians need your help now. Our experience isn't the commonest one - most of the people who have spent time out there haven't been jailed and deported but have made a real difference.
I was inspired to go by other people who went before me and made a difference. If people are inspired by our story, and go too, and inspire people both there and here by giving a shit, maybe one day the spirals of inspiration will overcome the spirals of violence and then there'll be peace.