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Calibrated chaos and cruelty in the little town of Bethlehem

Following a recent visit, JAN O’MALLEY reports on the tactics of constant obstruction, harassment and persecution, from tear-gassing nurseries to arbitrary checkpoints and night raids, used to drive Palestinians from their land

DURING my visit to Palestine on a 10-day study tour organised by the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD) in November, I saw many examples of carefully calibrated chaos and cruelty used by the Israelis to systematically disrupt every aspect of Palestinian life.

This goes on every day and is not always reported by the world’s media. As the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti said: “Occupation interferes in every aspect of your life and of death; it interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking in the street. It interferes with going anywhere and coming back, with going to market, the hospital, the beach, the bedroom, or a distant capital.”

We visited checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem at 5.30am and saw hundreds of Palestinian workers with permits to work in Jerusalem gathering in a frightening crush to get through. This was no way human beings should have to start every working day.

Many had to get up at 3am to get to the checkpoint early in case the numbers are restricted or the checkpoint opens later than 6am. This causes congested traffic and panic every morning. Students coming to Bethlehem University from Jerusalem are affected too, often missing classes and even exams due to arbitrary delays in opening the checkpoint.

Gerard Horton of Military Court Watch told us how the Israeli army makes its presence felt through random night raids. This is done deliberately to disrupt normal family life and to avoid Palestinian resistance if arrests are made during the day.

Night raids are carried out between midnight and 5am to terrify and break the spirit of a village. Heavily armed soldiers bang on the door and if it’s not opened immediately, will blow it off its hinges. Hydraulic jacks are also used to open doors more quietly. Ten soldiers will then enter the house with another 10 or 20 soldiers waiting outside.

The soldiers burst in and separate parents from their children; there is crying and screaming with everyone frightened. Often the soldiers trash the house; they throw clothes onto the floor and turn over furniture. Food containers are emptied onto the ground, wasting valuable oil, flour and sugar.

Horton told us that the UN estimates that there are 2,800 raids each year — about eight a night. Almost every house in the villages located near Israeli settlements has experienced a raid, some several times.

The army often goes into a village to deliberately harass people, not to look for a real suspect — night raids are also simply used as a way of training new soldiers in a safe environment. It’s called “mapping an area” by the Israeli army.

In some families they take turns staying up all night so that they can prepare the children should there be a night raid. Sleep is disrupted. One mother started waking up every night at the same time as the last night raid. Such experiences are traumatic and result in a range of diseases, depression and other behavioural problems.  

In Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, Sarj Hasboon, a 25-year-old resident, said the camp had been designated by the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestine Refugees as the most tear-gassed place in the world based on 2018 research from the University of California.

On several days each week at about 5pm, Israeli troops enter the camp and fire tear gas. In 2021 the army tear-gassed the kindergarten when it was full of children. We saw film footage from earlier in 2022 when the army came in and chased young boys into the football ground and arrested two boys, aged seven and 11.

This has resulted in the children being afraid to play football and attend the kindergarten. He said that the only excuse for the army incursions and use of tear gas was to spread fear and ultimately encourage people to leave.  

Anas Abu Sour, the manager of the youth centre at the camp, explained that the Israeli army is fuelling divisions and conflict in the camp by giving weapons to gangs in the camp to encourage “sociocide.”  

Despite all these attacks, I saw amazing examples of dignified resistance.

The camp has run a youth centre since 1969 that now includes a music centre, function rooms, a football pitch, a kindergarten and a garden with greenhouses.

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh at the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity & Sustainability brings children from the Aida camp to learn about sustainable agriculture and conservation to this centre, which is part of Bethlehem University.

At the Tent of Nations, located on a hilltop between Hebron and Bethlehem, surrounded by five settlements, we met Daoud Nasser and his family, who have fought a legal battle to retain their farm for over 30 years.

The issue is now in Israel’s High Court. The family have spent more than $200,000 in legal fees. It is one of the few cases that has gone on since 1991. Yet despite the relentless adversity, including settler attacks, the family refuses to despair and runs an educational and environmental farm.  

Twenty-eight demolition orders have been placed on all their structures including their caves, greenhouses, cisterns and solar panels: all vital for living. The family persist in lovingly cultivating the land, tending their crops, and building bridges of understanding wherever they can with the help of thousands of international volunteers each year.

Most of the 30 groups that we met, both Palestinian and Israeli, were clear that a two-state solution is dead due to Israel’s isolation of Palestinian areas by major roads and settlements.

The ICAHD set out this view very clearly. It was clear that this is not a conflict between two equal sides but settler-colonialism, by which Israel is aiming to dominate and drive out the Palestinian population.

One Israeli journalist we met, Edo Konrad, editor of the online magazine +972, said that some in the new right-wing Israeli government had even called for “a second Nakba” to destroy Palestinian resistance forever.

There was a wide consensus that a single democratic state was the only real long-term solution, as remote as it seems at the moment. Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to show their “sumud” — steadfastness. As Nabila Espanioly, director of al-Tufula centre for women’s empowerment in Nazareth, said to us: “As a Palestinian, I don’t have the privilege of giving up hope.”

This hope will only be realised with international support for the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions campaign, for which we must all increase the pressure and follow in our own lives.

Jan O’Malley is a member of Palestine Solidarity Campaign — www.palestinecampaign.org.

For more information on the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions visit www.ICAHD.org.

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