Most people arrived to the Bethlehem Bible College on Monday morning 29 October 2001 in a daze. For ten days (since Thursday 18 October) we had been hunkered down inside our houses, not daring to venture outside because of the numerous Israeli snipers positioned in high buildings throughout the town. There had been a total of 22 tanks patrolling areas throughout Bethlehem and Bet Jala, and one had been parked at the front gate of the college’s administrative office building, aiming its turret at the re
Most people arrived to the Bethlehem Bible College on Monday morning 29 October 2001 in a daze. For ten days (since Thursday 18 October) we had been hunkered down inside our houses, not daring to venture outside because of the numerous Israeli snipers positioned in high buildings throughout the town. There had been a total of 22 tanks patrolling areas throughout Bethlehem and Bet Jala, and one had been parked at the front gate of the college’s administrative office building, aiming its turret at the refugee camp across the street. As these tanks finally withdrew in the early morning hours on Monday, people could finally return to their schools and their jobs and their daily routines, but not without giving sober consideration to the loss of life and unimaginable property damage which accompanied this latest incursion into Palestinian towns.
We at the Bible College give thanks for many gifts. First, the grounds of the campus sustained surprisingly little damage considering the proximity of the exchanges. Eight windows were smashed and one window frame was splintered. The wall plaster in two rooms (a room in the guesthouse and the teachers’ meeting room downstairs) was sprayed with gunfire or shrapnel. The van’s rear windshield was shattered. One rooftop water tank was punctured by bullet holes. And the brass gas lines providing gas for the guesthouse kitchen were severed. However, the damage was minimal relative to the rest of the town, and in comparison to the 17 April attack. The total amount of property damage in Bethlehem has been estimated at 17 million dollars. Officials have not yet had the opportunity to fully determine how many homes were damaged (over 1000), how many businesses were destroyed (over 20 just in Azza Camp), how many cars were crushed, how many public service buildings were deliberately targeted (including two of the town’s main hospitals, the campus of Bethlehem University, and two major hotels, one of which was completely destroyed), and how much of the municipal infrastructure was vandalized by tanks (including streetlights, traffic lights, telephone poles, telephone booths, street signs, electrical poles, paved roads, and municipal water pipes).
Secondly, we are thankful that all the people living on the grounds of the college survived the ordeal without physical injury. At the time of the incursion, in addition to Dr. Bishara’s wife Selwa (Bishara himself was attending a conference in the United States at the time), there weretwo volunteer faculty members, two general volunteers, three single boarding students, and one boarding family with two young boys. All but three people were evacuated to Jerusalem on Wednesday during a brief cease-fire. Alistair Sanders commented that the worst part of the experience was not fear for personal safety, but having to watch helplessly as the soldiers obviously targeted the refugee camp across the street, spraying gunfire indiscriminately at the houses. From the guesthouse he could see “three serious fires, two buildings opposite us and the building right next door were burned….On Friday Israeli soldiers took up position in a deserted building diagonally across the street from us. We saw them knocking holes in the walls and shooting down into the camp from their seventh-floor vantage point….The shops [were] closed and there [was] hardly anyone on the streets – only tanks and the occasional ambulance. We [were] having to be very cautious with our limited supply of food.”
In addition, we give thanks for the fact that none of our students, faculty members, or administrative/support staff living in the areas under siege suffered personal losses within the immediate family, although Jimmie Hawari, a fourth-year student, lost a cousin,19-year-old Moussa Abu Eid who was killed by a sniper while standing near a window beside his father inside his house in Aida refugee camp. The loss of life during this ten-day period was unbearably high. 52 Palestinians were killed from 18-28 October, 23 of them in the Bethlehem district. Four of these were Christians. Four were women (one of whom was pregnant-the baby died as well) and three were children under the age of 18. One victim was deaf. One was preparing for his wedding celebration, scheduled for the same night of his death. The vast majority were civilians uninvolved in the fighting. More than 30 Bethlehem-area children lost a parent. For all these innocent victims, we pray for the Lord to comfort their bereaved families and to uplift them in their time of sorrow.
For us in Bethlehem, the unthinkable has taken place. The town of Bethlehem was for the most part spared during 1948 and 1967 major wars, in what we always believed was a special gesture toward the Christian presence. It goes without saying that Bethlehem has always been and will always be considered a sacred site for Christians all over the globe
This latest tank incursion into Bethlehem is not just shocking, but also a very very sad testimony to worldwide indifference toward both the Palestinian plight and also the plight of the indigenous Christian population under Israeli occupation.
In four weeks, the season of Advent will be upon us. Last year at this time, the birthplace of Jesus Christ was under economic siege and Bethlehem’s Christians were suffering from the lack of pilgrims, the lack of income, and the lack of food to feed their families. This year, Jesus’ birthplace has endured a ferocious state of literal military siege and we will not celebrate our Savior’s birth without remembering all those who died, all those who mourn the loss of family members, all those who lost their livelihoods, and all those who continue to struggle by on the very verge of economic despair. Only Jesus Christ can transform our pain and sorrow into redemption and joy. The gift of His love, hope, and forgiveness ins the only thing we need this Christmas.