Salaam to you from Jerusalem that is sadly lacking peace. And grace to you from our Holy Land, the very grace of God that sustains us in our work. It is with great urgency we today write to all our friends and partners. Again we have to bring violent attacks on the Palestinian people to your attention.
25 October, 2001
Dear sisters and brothers,
Salaam to you from Jerusalem that is sadly lacking peace. And grace to you from our Holy Land, the very grace of God that sustains us in our work.
It is with great urgency we today write to all our friends and partners. Again we have to bring violent attacks on the Palestinian people to your attention.
The Israeli attack on Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and other Palestinian towns
Last Friday (19 October) Rev. Jadallah Shihadeh, reported to our office that the Israeli tanks were standing in front of our Church compound in Beit Jala. Soon we realized that the tanks had entered Bethlehem, Beit Jala ( incl. Aida Refugee Camp), Beit Sahour, the northern parts of Ramallah, Jenin, Tulkarem and Qalqiliya. In all these Palestinian administered towns the now occupied areas are under severe restrictions of movement preventing people from going to work, attending school, and even getting food. For days and nights the shooting and shelling has continued forcing the terrified people to take cover in their homes as best they can.
In the six days of fighting that have past we now count well over forty Palestinian deaths. The majority of these were civilians. Among the dead Palestinians are four women, one little girl and two youths below the age of 16, as well as the ten people killed in yesterdays all-out attack on the village of Beit Reema by the Israeli Army. So far, seven Israeli soldiers have been wounded, one seriuosly the others lightly.
From our people in Beit Jala we get reports that the soldiers also have occupied several high buildings, from where snipers fire at people in the town. So far two people have been killed. One of them a boy aged 19, who was hit by a bullet when sitting in a sofa inside the house. He was a neighbour of pastor Shihadeh. The other victim was a 26 year old mother of two, who was shot in the neck when moving between her car and a shop.
It seems however Bethlehem is the main target this time. In a message written Saturday (20/10) the staff of the International Centre inthe Lutheran Church in Bethlehem described the situation in the town:
Thursday evening (18 October) the Israelis assassinated three Fatah activists, evidently through a booby-trapped car, in a residential area on a road between Bethlehem and Beit Sahour.Within a short time, the shops quickly closed and the streets were full of men going to the hospital in Beit Jala where the bodies had been taken.It didn’t take long for people to realize that the situation would escalate in the next few hours. And they were right. By 10:00 pm, heavy exchanges of fire had begun between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Soon, the Israeli tanks and helicopter gun ships also entered the picture.Off and on all night long firing continued, making sleep impossible for most of the residents of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.Israeli tanks rolled into Bethlehem and Beit Jala around 1:00 am, moving down Hebron Road and Manger Street in Bethlehem and behind Talitha Kumi School and Aida Refugee Camp in Beit Jala.
As day dawned Friday, reports were that the Israeli Forces had occupied both the new Intercontinental Hotel on Hebron Road and the Paradise Hotel on Manger Street.They had also taken position on a hill south of the Church of Nativity. —- All this means that life has come to a stop.On Friday, no one could get to the Center, as most staff lived in areas in which heavy firing was occurring.For the safety of the students, all schools are closed (a 10-year old school girl was killed by Israeli fire on Thursday morning in Jenin), shops are closed today in memorial of the three Palestinians who were killed yesterday in their homes by Israeli fire. Even now as we write this, tanks shells are exploding around the Bethlehem area and a young girl and a young woman in Beit Jala have just been killed. Some of our staff have just called, and are in the middle of extremely heavy firing.
The people in Bethlehem have since then been terrorized by Israeli tanks with mortar fire, machine-gun fire, bulldozers destroying buildings, and snipers hiding in different buildings.The Israeli fire has hit the Holy Family Hospital, (as well as the Government Hospital in Beit Jala).Several hotels have been hit and destroyed. Also the buildings of Bethlehem Universityand a great number of private houses have received heavy fire.Even the area around Nativity Church has seen tanks and gunfire. From the International Centre we were told about one victim of the attack:
His name was Johnny Thaljiya, a 17 year-old Christian Palestinian, who lived with his family just off of Manger Square, where he grew up playing with his friends and attending the Greek Orthodox services at the Church of the Nativity.”From a young age he was always at the Church, always willing to help. He was loving toward every human being, a gift he received from God. We said his heart was as a diamond or gold,” explained Father Theophanis, the local priest. On Saturday afternoon, 20 October 2001, Johnny came out from vespers at the church and stayed on Manger Square to talk with his cousin.A short while later, a bullet claimed his life there. Tragically, rather than assisting with the Sunday service yesterday, at 15:30 local time, in the church he loved, his funeral took place.
In the last 3 days, the people of Bethlehem are going from funeral to funeral, the sounds of the calls to prayer from the mosques and the sad bells of mourning ringing from the churches fill the air of the town. Manger Square which was renovated as a place to welcome the new millennium and visitors from around the world is now transformed into a site of mourning, as the numerous families grieving now receive their condolence visits there. — And as we write this tank shells and heavy machine guns are exploding just 300 meters from our church. —
Yesterday evening even the local public hospital in Beit Jala came under attack.The hospital director reported that it was hit at least five times within less than an hour.A young man was killed in the premises of the hospital and later, Amjed Abu Emya, the anesthesiologytechnician was injured.Tanks were positioned at the entrance of the hospital for svereral hours.
The attack on Bethlehem has continued almost unabated since Thursday evening. As this is written the shooting and shelling is still going on.
Once again innocent Palestinian civilians are being collectively punished by the Israeli armyâ€™s excessive use of force in avenging the death of an Israeli. (This time the murder of the far-rightwing minister Zeevi by an armed group belonging to a political party, which in turn got its leader assassinated by Israeli helicopter missiles in the end of August).
The Churches â€™Solidarity Convoy for Peaceâ€™
The situation is very alarming indeed. As a Church we feel crippled. We see the problem but can do very little ourselves about it.The Church Leaders in Jerusalem, however, jointly arranged a â€Solidarity Convoy for Peaceâ€ from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which took place yesterday. Around thousand people walked from the Bethlehem check-point to Nativity Church in Bethlehem, and visited also Beit Jala. The march was led by a number of the Heads of Churches.
The purpose of the demonstration was
- to express solidarity with the beleaguered people ofBethlehem area to call for an immediate end of the Israeli incursion in the autonomous Palestinian areas
- to call for an immediate end of all forms of violence from all sides
- to call on the International Community to ensure the protection of civilians;
- to call the two parties to return to negotiations in order to reach a just and comprehensive solution based on what is internationally legitimate
- to call the UN to press both parties to comply with international resolutions and implement them with immediate effect.
When the march moved through a scarred Bethlehempeople came out from their homes for the first time in days. After a joint prayer in the Church, the visitors met with some of the bereaved families in Bethlehem and Beit Jala. For some hours it was quiet in the town, as all Israelitanks and soldiers had been moved out of sight. However, as soon as the demonstration had returned to the check-point the tanksandsoldiers immediately reappeared and heavy tank and machine-gun fire broke loose again. This went on continuously day and night well into this morning, causing further destruction and death.
Impact on the ELCJ schools
Our Schoolâ€™s Director, Ms. Violet Raheb, is voicing her great concern of the severe impact this crisis will have on the educational and social work of our church. Most ofour activities in these fields are located in the Bethlehem area. The new school year started only recently. Experiencing the severe effects of the 13 months long acute conflict, a firm decision was taken to keep the schools open in spite of all difficulties.
However, since the Israeli attack our three schools have been closed for days now, as the safety of the students can not be guaranteed.Since Tuesday wehave attempted to openthe school in Beit Sahourfor part of the day, as the situation was somewhat more quiet in that area.But most of the students did not attend, as the parents are afraid of allowing their children to leave home. The staff of our schools also have difficulties to get to their place of work due to the ongoing violence. Once it will be possible to reopen the schools again, it is obvious that a lot of time and effort has to be spent on assisting the very scared and traumatized children to deal with the terrible experiences of the last days.
During the past month the Schoolâ€™s Director has worked hard to submit appeals and requests for funding, to cover the shortfall in tuition feeâ€™s caused by unemployed parents inability to pay for the education of their children. With this last attack of the Bethlehem area it feels as if all these efforts to compensate for the local financial crisis, caused by the thirteen months of violent conflict, have stranded and need to be revised yet once again.But as long as your main concern is to try and survive the ongoing ordeal, the long-term educational and economical issues somehow loose a lot of importance.
Naturally the suffering people are our main concern. But we are also concerned about our buildings and institutions, as the Israeli army seemingly has a free hand to destroy whatever comes in their way. There is at the moment no sense of security in the area.
The ongoing crisis has also severely affected the work in our Church Office. Our Church Secretary Mr. George Awad, who lives in Beit Sahour, has been barred from entering Jerusalem since last Thursday.Because of this a number of urgent issues have been left unattended for a week.At this point we do not know when Mr Awad will be back in the office again. For the time being we can only consult him per telephone in his home.
We often feel helpless in this violent crisis. But at the occupation of our Church premises in Beit Jala in August, we learned the strength of networking together. We are indeed grateful for everything our partners and friends have done to support us. Your renewed efforts to network with us and use all your influence to support us all in the ongoing crisis will be ofimmense importance to us.
Continue to pray for us â€“ and to work for us. Remember in your thoughts and prayers our mission of dignity, forgiveness and love, and do not allow the forces of occupation, injustice and hatred to succeed. Let us stand together in being instruments for just peace. We urge you to pressure your governments to continously work for the implementation ofwhat is internationally legitimate, as a means of resolving this long, violent conflict. Our people in Bethlehem express what we all feel:
As the shelling becomes louder and nearer, as we listen to the wailing of the ambulance sirens going nearby, we urge you not to leave us ‘orphans.’Do not forget us in our time of trial.Pray for us, but in these days,more importantly, contact your government officials urging them to intercede before more people are killed.
May God bless you all.
Munib A. Younan
The Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem
This newsletter has been compiled by Mr. George Awad and Rev. Gustaf Odquist ( the ELCJ Secretary for International and Ecumenical Relations),in coordination with bishop Munib Younan who at present is travelling abroad.