These days we live more of the same, much more. The Israelis seem to say: Although we are not shelling you, we’ll make your life difficult by all other means that are at our disposal.

June 4 – June 11, 2001

These days we live more of the same, much more. The Israelis seem to say: Although we are not shelling you, we’ll make your life difficult by all other means that are at our disposal. Even within the West Bank traveling now takes many more hours due to long checks and the inconvenience of taking small dirt roads deep in the countryside. A Bethlehem University lecturer travels eight hours from Nablous in the north to Bethlehem (normally 2,5 hours). Ismail moves to his family in law in nearby Beit’Ummar to be better able to travel to his work in Hebron, a journey which still takes him over two hours (normally 20 minutes). A traveler taking a taxi at the Allenby Bridge to Bethlehem, normally a one and a half hour drive, arrives home after six hours, including three hours walking (with luggage!) Several cars from Hebron take dirt roads to enter Bethlehem from the south but each is checked for a full hour, Ismail tells. Sana’s says that it is now for the first time that she has been asked to show a permit at the checkpoint nearby Battir where she is school principal. During several days, only taxis with student candidates for the important tawjihi (matriculation) exam are allowed to pass along the Jerusalem-Hebron road. Of course the prices of the taxis become higher and for many unpayable. From the Allenby Bridge, taxis charge between 200 and 400 shekel (50-100 dollar), the drivers arguing that their cars need maintenance after the bumpy rides through the mud and the fields.  International traveling is similarly obstructed. Mitri Raheb, the reverend of the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, and his sister Viola, are not allowed to go out to Germany. A cousin of Mary succeeds in obtaining a permit to Tel Aviv airport just one hour before he has to leave home. The consul of South-Korea, the country to which he is invited, is waiting him up at the airport to facilitate his passing through the entrance checkpoint. (Mary suggests that I should invite the Dutch Queen at the airport so that we are able, Inshallah, to have our summer holiday abroad). I think that Israel should be renamed “Checkpoint Israel.” Many try to escape through the Allenby Bridge to Jordan but this has its own problems. For some reason but in any case at a most unfortunate moment, Jordan has decided to increase the bureaucratic obstacles for Palestinians from East-Jerusalem and the occupied territories traveling to Jordan. As a Palestinian you now need both an Israeli exit permit and an official authorization from the Jordanian authorities to visit Jordan. Right now even this is not possible since the bridge is closed for any traveling out of the West Bank into Jordan. Only Palestinians on a visit to Jordan are allowed to return to Palestine. That is, three buses are daily permitted to cross. Suzy’s sister who is presently in Amman tried to return but arrived too late at the bridge. There were many people waiting and sleeping in order to be first in line for the three buses. She heard about one passenger who arrived at the bridge at eight o’clock in the morning and succeeded to be in a bus. However, at the moment of arrival on the Israeli side the bus was not allowed to come in and had to return to Jordan in the course of the afternoon.

People like me who are able to work at home or in the neighborhood are well-off for reasons of time, money and safety. Traveling is not without physical dangers. Mary observed three female students at the university who broke their legs at separate accidents: climbing over a wall, stumbling over the rocks. Sana’s tells that she still has pain in her back after a taxi driver took a dangerous turn over a dirt road. I see a picture in Haaretz showing a half-blind woman guiding a blind woman across the rocks near Ramallah. Many stories keep repeating. A woman delivering while waiting at a checkpoint. A man dying on his way to the hospital after a long detour. Some people stop telling and retelling the stories. It’s too much.
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Presently I am working on an oral history project: Suzy’s 16 year-old students wrote down interviews they held with their grandparents and parents about past wars, rebellions and daily life, from the First World War on. A question crosses the mind: What kind of stories will the students later on remember from the present-day crazy period in which we live? Perhaps those stories which go deep into one’s personal life, such as those which link up with family events or which have a tragic-comic element. One student told us at the institute that on the wedding day of her sister last week her family, who have Jerusalem IDs and are therefore still able to travel in and out of Bethlehem, went out for the wedding party in Jaffa near the sea. Upon returning to Bethlehem, her father started an argument with the soldiers and, in a kind of reprisal, was held at the checkpoint for six hours till deep in the night. The other guests, including the women in fancy outfit, were ordered to manoeuvre through the rocks and dirty ground of Tantur to enter Bethlehem. Mary tells that she heard that at a checkpoint near Ramallah a married couple had to leave their wedding car; the groom guided the bride over the rocks.

Such type of stories stick to people’s mind, sometimes even more than the more violent stories. The girls’ oral histories show such family events as remembered by the elderly. They for instance describe how, during a moment of heavy bombing in the 1967 war, a fridge suddenly opened and that a pan with food fell on a guest’s head; or how a pet dog was hit by a shell, or how women at home were cooking artichoke for the first time in their life but were forced to run away from home while preparing the meal. Stories about how family life is affected are especially tragic when they relate to the nakhba, the disaster that happened when Palestinians fled their home in 1948. In two different instances, students describe how a grandfather who did not want to leave his house was carried away by his son on the back. There is a story about a wedding procession in Beit Safafa, a village near Jerusalem which before 1967 was split across the Jordanian-Israeli border and where a large fence with railings was erected to separate the two parts of the village. In the procession, family and guests were walking jointly but separately along both sides of the fence.

One story is especially touching. A grandmother who during the 1948 war lived in Jaffa wanted to pick up her baby boy whom she had left at her neighbor’s. She found out that the baby was taken away in the disturbances. Afterwards she managed to become a servant at the Israeli family who had adopted the baby (appropriately called “Moshe ” or Moses – it was Moses who after being found in the river Nile by Pharao’s daughter was raised by his real mother disguised as a servant). After several unsuccessful attempts, the mother finally succeeded to take away the baby and return home. The student who wrote down the story could not sleep afterwards.
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One surprising finding after reading the fifty or so oral histories is the fact that the stories read more like a history of Palestine than a history of Bethlehem. More than half of the stories originate outside Bethlehem. While only a few of the students involved live in a refugee camp, many of them have families who originally come from elsewhere: Gaza, Ramleh, Jaffa, Ein Karem, from destroyed villages like Zackaria, even from areas in Turkey where the Ottomans persecuted minorities. The stories are tragic in the single aspect which defines the common Palestinian experience: separation – from the land and one’s possessions, from one’s family, from one another.

As if to overcome the scar of separation, the telling of the histories somehow succeed in creating a bond across the generations. I feel that the most touching parts of the stories are not just the description of the past events themselves but the dynamics of the conversation between the young and old. Several students tell how the history-telling session at home started with an electricity cut during shelling. What better can you do in the dark than telling stories to each other? The shared suffering and fear create intimacy, and in many cases the students as well as grandparents recreate their mutual relationship; the students becoming more appreciative of the elderly, and the elderly feeling relieved that they had an opportunity to tell their stories. Suzy calls it the “unbroken chain” created by storytelling. It creates some trust and hope. In the words of one of the organizations involved in the project, Wi’am – Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center (“Wi’am” means “cordial relationships”): “In a time when so much is being systematically taken from the Palestinian people, we feel the need to light a small candle of hope instead of cursing the darkness, for we know the dawn is coming.”

Once, Mary tells me, Israel’s first prime minister Ben Gourion expressed the hope that with the dying out of the Palestinian generation who experienced the nakhba, the stories and memories of the flight and the longing for the old land would die out too. “The old will die and the young will forget.” But when a major injustice is not resolved, people don’t forget. In an interview on Israel TV yesterday, the Israeli presentator Ilana Dayan asks Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman, whether the Palestinians still think that they can return to their original villages and towns. Ashrawi clarifies that three things have to happen for negotiations to succeed: firstly, Israel should express remorse for what happened in 1948, secondly, the legal principle of the right of return should be accepted, and, thirdly, the implementation of this right should be conducted in a way that addresses the needs of both Israel and the Palestinian people. I am surprised that the interview is honest and not unsympathetic.

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And Jara? I’ll visit her at the summer camp while she is singing the English song taught by a Rosary Sister’s nun: “Good morning to you. I go to your place, with sunshine on my face.” However, the sunshine disappears when she is home and when she refuses to go back next day. There is a ghouleh (kind of monster) at the camp, is her unacceptable excuse. We keep her under house arrest for some days; that is, no special journeys and no special favors. She keeps her dignity and does not ask us any stories to tell during the night. After all, she knows them well. We’ll keep a fragile ceasefire.

The oral history book will be published at the end of June: St Joseph School for Girls, Wi’am – Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, and the Arab Educational Institute, Your Stories Are My Stories: A Palestinian Oral History Project. Culture and Palestine Series, Bethlehem, 150 pages.  About 30 shekel. Copies can be ordered via my email:

Olive Branch from Jerusalem: Newsletter published from the Holy Land by Fr. Raed Abusahlia
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