Into Bethlehem

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Professor May Nassar and Suleiman Al Hamri

We knew that it would be a non-stop day when our host Sulaiman al-Hamri, from Combatants for Peace, joked that this was his way to “re-pay” Aliza for his 21-city Brit Tzedek tour during the winter. We arrived at the checkpoint just before 8:30 a.m., when the early morning school and work lines were already over. It should be said that the way into Bethlehem is not through an “ordinary” checkpoint of yellow metal gates and barbed wire fences; it is through a far more elaborate series of cement walls, metal detectors, and enclosed booths – one could mistake the set-up for passport control in an international airport, except for the presence of soldiers, loudspeakers, and observers from the Christian Peacemakers Team. The city of Bethlehem is surrounded on 3 sides by the Separation Wall, both finished concrete and temporary fences, completely cut off from East Jerusalem, only six and a half miles  away.

Sulaiman drives us to the Bethlehem Hotel for our check-in – it is easy to get our room this early in the day as business is way down in the city’s tourism industry – and then to the Church of the Nativity for a little bit of sightseeing with his friend Mahmoud, an excellent tour guide.  Mahmoud tells us of his intensive three-year training as a guide and his very bad luck in starting out just as the second intifada began. He takes us through the Church with its crypts, basilicas, and rows of lamps, and into Manger Square where, in 2002, the IDF was stationed for 39 days in a stand-off with 200 Palestinians inside the Church. We could easily spend the rest of our day sightseeing, but Sulaiman has other plans for us.

ALMOST NORMAL

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Aliza Becker with Bethlehem University students:
Mona Harjazi, Adhme Issa, Ali Mustafa, Norah Hantash, Walaa Amro, Walaa Toakhi

You could mistake Bethlehem University for a California college campus. Most of the architecture is modern and Western in style, there are green plants and open courtyards where students sit in the sun, iPods, and trendy fashion (young men in sunglasses and young women in jeans with matching head scarves). The students we meet are happy to talk to us, though they are clearly more interested in talking to a group of their peers from Stanford University who happen to be there at the same time. Several are studying English as a major or minor subject; Aliza compliments them – as a former ESL teacher, she is impressed with their use of slang.

It is easy to forget that Bethlehem University is anything but an ordinary institution of higher learning until you stand out on a sixth-story patio and look out over the city. From there, the wall is visible. From there, the settlements of Har Homa and Gilo are visible. “ Bethlehem is a prison,” one faculty member tells us. “There are more women than men going to university because the men get involved in the intifada, go to prison or worse,” a student tells us. As we stand looking out on a beautiful day, a rally for Hamas begins in the outdoor amphitheater below. Student Council elections are coming up, and as the elections mirror the political parties, each party stages a rally during the weeks running up to the voting. There is a huge poster of Haniyeh hanging in the courtyard, campaign music blasting, gender-segregated seating in the barely half-filled seats.

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View from Bethlehem University facing the settlement of Har Homa.

After several glasses of sweet tea, we leave the campus to meet with Yehuda Shaul from Breaking the Silence, and return from Hebron in early evening for the talk by Fouad Kikali (with a stop at a local tea-and-hookah restaurant to shake hands with the Mayor of Beit Sahour). Only at 9 p.m. do we finally get to relax for a little while with Sulaiman and his family at their limestone house a 10-minute drive away from the hotel. They graciously serve us oranges, kiwi, and bananas – more than we can possibly eat – and bring in the space heater to make sure we are comfortable. Sulaiman’s wife Mukaram holds their youngest child in her lap as she dozes, his other three children sit patiently through a conversation they don’t understand. We talk a bit about politics, but mostly about the more personal details of our lives. Almost normal.