A Visit to Beit Jala

by Jim Forest

Beit Jala, with its population of 12,350, stands on the eastern slopes of Ras Jala, which rises 920 meters above sea level, one of the highest mountains in the Judean Hills. The town is famous for its olives and olive oil, apricots and skilled stone-cutters. Viewed from a distance, Beit Jala — “carpet of grass” in Aramaic– is simply the western side of Bethlehem, only on higher ground. The border between the two towns is the road that runs south from Jerusalem to Hebron. The main street connecting Bethlehem and Beit Jala — part of it a stairway — is a busy pedestrian artery named in honor of Pope Paul VI. Along the way there are many posters honoring Palestinians who had died in the intifada, from infants killed by accident to suicide bombers. The buildings are two or three storeys high with shops on the ground floor. In ancient times, Beit Jala may have been the Biblical town of Gallim, mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah in relation to the Assyrian invasion in the eighth century before Christ, a time of even greater suffering.

Beit Jala is also one of the main Palestinian centers of Christianity. Approximately 70 percent of the community are Orthodox Christians, 20 percent Catholic, and the rest Muslim. There are three Orthodox churches, a Catholic church and seminary, and a mosque.

Beit Jala is also one of the Palestinian places most damaged by Israeli firepower since the current intifada began in September 2000, just after Sharon’s infamous visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Hundreds of houses have been damaged, many destroyed or made uninhabitable. No one goes to sleep without taking care to be in the safest possible location.

I visited the town in the eleventh month of the current conflict, often referred to both in Israel and Palestine as “the situation.”

In conversation with a taxi driver in the town center, I had the good luck to meet someone not only welcoming but remarkably open and articulate. I will refer to him as Michael, not using his actual name.

I asked if anyone in his family had been hurt in the conflict.

“No, thank God, but we have had some very close calls. There has been serious damage in the upper part of our house but no one was injured, at least not physically. Only one of my daughters — she is seven — has been having terrible nightmares and headaches. My wife and I also have trouble sleeping. But luckily we are not in the area of houses closest to Gilo. For now we are trying to stay in our house.”

Michael gave me a gift — a long, heavy, missile-shaped slug which still had its sharp point. It had shattered a window in his home before being stopped inside a living room couch. It’s a souvenir I didn’t bring back home with me — it’s not the kind of object I would want to explain to a security agent at Ben Gurion Airport — but I have a photo of it in the taxi-driver’s hand.

I mentioned to him that I knew Gilo from the period in 1985 when I was teaching at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, a place in the immediate neighborhood both of Beit Jala and Gilo, the one community southwest of us, the other west. At the time, Anne was still a baby and Gilo — a young town itself, only fifteen years old — was the one place in walking distance where disposable diapers were for sale in those days. These were sold at an American-style supermarket, but Nancy preferred to do most of our food shopping at traditional open-air Arab markets along the roads to Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Gilo — as new as the nearby Palestinian towns were ancient — was built on land confiscated from Beit Jala and the adjacent village of Beit Safafa. It’s one of the belt of fortress-like settlements Israel has established that circle East Jerusalem. Another substantial settlement, Har Homa, is now under construction on another confiscated hilltop immediately north of Bethlehem.

“Doesn’t anybody care about us?” Michael asked. These were words I heard over and over again from Palestinians in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and then Beit Jala. “Not many of us wish any harm to the Israelis. We want to live side-by-side with them and raise our children in peace. For us who are Christian, it is especially hard — radical Israelis on one side, radical Muslims on the other. These fanatics will be our death. Fanatics are a minority but more and more they seem to be the ones in charge. I pray every day for God to protect us and also ask St. Nicholas to help us.”

The oldest Christian church in Beit Jala is named in honor of St. Nicholas. I had already been in the church for a visit. There were icons of Nicholas everywhere I turned, including one carved from red stone on a pillar in the crypt.

“We Christians are only two percent of the Palestinian population. Our only hope of survival is to live in peace with all our neighbors, whether Jewish or Muslim. Jesus killed no one. He hated no one. He gives us the example of peace.”

I asked if anyone was helping the local people rebuild damaged houses.

“Thank God, the Vatican is helping us, but I am sorry to say we experience no support from our own Orthodox Church. Do Orthodox Christians in other countries not care about their brothers in the land where Christ was born? I am happy you came and only wish many more would come. Perhaps if they saw how we are living, what is happening to us, they would try to help. Perhaps they can have some influence on their governments. What can we do to stop the war? Only people in Europe and America can do that. Who else will the Israelis listen to? For them a Palestinian is hardly more than an animal. But we are human beings who only want to live in peace. We cannot live without the Israelis and they cannot live without us.”

I pointed out that news reports indicate that Israeli forces normally doesn’t shoot first at Beit Jala but open fire only in retaliation. Michael shook his head and lit a cigarette.

“I have to admit the Israelis are not our only problem. There are Palestinian radicals who shoot at Gilo and the army post that protects Gilo. The Palestinian Authority has issued orders that no one should attract fire on populated areas and peaceful homes but such orders have little effect. These men keep shooting — not every day but often. Sometimes they shoot from inside cars. Their only achievement is giving the Israelis an excuse to destroy our homes. I no longer can remember how many times we have been attacked in the last eleven months — thousands of bullets, also rockets and bombs, and who knows what is still to come? We are used to helicopter gunships over our houses. Perhaps next it will be tanks.”

I asked why anyone would shoot at Gilo if the real harm is done not to Gilo but to Beit Jala.

“We don’t think any of the people who fire shots from Beit Jala live here. They use Beit Jala because it is so close to Gilo. They use Beit Jala — and Gilo — to make Israel angry, to make the fire hotter. They think they are doing something brave, something for the liberation of Palestine, but all they do is give Israel an excuse to destroy Palestinian homes and cause more Palestinians to flee to other countries. There are fewer and fewer Christians in the Holy Land.”

I asked if he had ever visited Gilo or knew anyone from that town. That morning the taxi driver who brought me to the military checkpoint to the north of Bethlehem was from Gilo, a man whose parents had come to Israel from the Jewish community in Iraq.

“I was in Gilo when it was mainly olive groves — I gathered olives there with my family — but I wouldn’t dare to go there today, especially right now. Another place I would not dare enter is Har Gilo, a smaller settlement on the western edge of Beit Jala — you can walk there easily from here, only you have to pass through a military checkpoint. Har Gilo was created on Beit Jala land in 1976.”

I asked if he had any hope for better times in the future.

“Some days I have no hope at all and other days I thank God that we are still alive and that it is mainly our houses rather than our people which are destroyed. On those days I feel God is close and it gives me hope.”

His home is near the Church of the Virgin Mary, one of the largest churches in the Holy Land, built of cream white stone in the Byzantine style. “The bell tower is 31 meters high,” Michael said. “You can see Jerusalem from it, and the Jordanian desert.

The conversation with Michael was providential. A planned meeting with the senior Orthodox priest, Fr. George Shawan, came next and was the day’s main event.

A man with a close-clipped, greying beard, Fr. George is living in large house on Virgin Mary Street next to Beit Jala’s only mosque. Also in the house were his wife, mother and children, four of whom I met — Heidi, Christina, Natasha, and Stephanos, who is less than a year old. Also taking part in the visit was Dr. Solomon Nour, headmaster of Hope School, and Rose Saga, a member of his parish whom I knew through a mutual friend.

After lemonade was served, Fr. George told me why the town’s oldest church is named in honor of St. Nicholas.

“For us he is not Santa Claus but like our great great grandfather. We feel we know him personally. In the year 305, several monks from Anatolia in Asia Minor came here and established a small monastery with a church named in honor of the Great Martyr George. This was before St. Sava’s Monastery was founded in the desert east of Bethlehem on the Kidron Gorge near the Dead Sea. The monks in Beit Jala had a few caves and several houses. In the years 312-315, St. Nicholas was here. He came as a pilgrim to visit shrines in the Holy Land. A text written in his own hand is still in the care of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem. It was in his prayers that St. Nicholas heard the Holy Spirit call him back to Asia Minor, to Myra, where soon after his return — in 317 — he was consecrated bishop. We was among the bishops taking part in the first Ecumenical Council.”

I asked about the age of the present church.

“The ancient church was destroyed by the Persians in 614 but another was raised in its place and later also destroyed. It has been built and rebuilt several times, but our local people are very skilled stone workers and never let a church stay in ruins for long. It is said that the people of Beit Jala can make the stone talk!

“But now we are facing another period of destruction. In the past 20 years much of our land has been confiscated and thousands of olive trees destroyed. Many people have been displaced. The Israeli town of Gilo, immediately to the north, is built entirely on land taken from Beit Jala and another Palestinian village, Beit Safafa.”

His views about the violence of the past eleven months were similar to what I had been told by Michael the taxi driver.

“Radical gunmen — not local people — have used Beit Jala in order to fire shots at Gilo. Israel responds with bullets, rockets and bombs. So far 300 homes have been heavily damaged, 50 completely destroyed. Many more have been damaged less severely — broken windows, damage to the furnishings inside. When you think how much damage has been done, how many times Beit Jala has been attacked, it is a miracle there have been so few casualties!”

I asked where people who have been forced from their homes either by destruction or danger are staying.

“Sometimes they stay for a night or two in our churches. In most cases they find places away from the main lines of fire. The most dangerous area is in direct sight of Gilo, the north edge of town.”

Does he see a solution for the conflict?

“We continue to hope that the resolutions of the UN Security Council can be applied and that the way can be found for the Holy Land to be shared and all the people living here to respect and safeguard each other, but it seems to us that Israel’s wishes are quite different. Israel wants everything and controls everything. Israel closes every road. I am afraid to go anywhere. Often it is impossible to visit people who are ill or close to death and need a priest. Even our school, a 20-minute walk from here, is on the other side of a checkpoint.”

I asked if the local people continue in Beit Jala under such circumstances.

“Beit Jala has been a center of Christian life in the Holy land for nearly 2000 years and has survived many catastrophes, but now our Christian community is shrinking, partly because of the violence, but mainly because of our severe economic problems. The most urgent thing for our people is to find jobs and, in the case of newly married couples, to have a place to live. Because of the economic situation, young couples are unable to rent or buy a home or apartment. This is one of the reasons so many of our young people are leaving for America or Jordan or other countries.”

But is housing a question for the Church?

“The Church cannot say this is their problem, not our problem. The Church begins with the family. Without it, there is no Church. We are not a religion of individuals but of families.”

I asked if the Church had the funds for building.

“Our hope is that we can find friends in other countries who can help with long-term, low-interest loans. We have two projects in mind. The first is a housing project especially for young couples. The Church owns the land — it is only a question of putting up the buildings. Our plan is to put up several building with a total 40 apartments costing $50,000 each. Thus we need to borrow $2,000,000. The couples will pay back the loans over a 30-year period.”

The headmaster of the Hope School, Dr. Nour, described one other plan. He has been at the school for 31 years.

“We want to add an additional floor to Hope School and make it a college, adding business administration and computer courses, also new language courses such as Greek. Until now it has been a secondary school with 125 students, 20 of whom are residential because they are orphans. The ages range from twelve to eighteen. Our local Arab Orthodox Benevolent Society owns the building but we have not been able to run it ourselves because we didn’t have enough money. The school has gradually been moving in a more Orthodox direction. The Mennonites who have been responsible for the school are willing that it be taken over by the local community — but we can only do so with outside help, though we are raising part of the school’s costs with self-support and work-study projects like our chicken farm, which raises three to five percent of the budget.”

“We are often given small gifts by caring people from other countries — food and clothing,” said Fr. George, “but what we really need is help in strengthening the structures of community. We can do a lot with our own hands, anything that does not require a lot of money. The future of the people of Beit Jala depends on such help! Without it the day will come when pilgrims will come here and find our churches buildings but not our believing people.”

I promised to make the projects known and can only hope that support can be found. Fr. George will soon be sending me detailed proposals to make available to anyone who will try to help. The sums of money needed are so tiny compared to the costs of war.

Fr. George was suddenly called away to visit a sick member of the parish. Dr. Nour excused himself as he had to return to the school. In their absence, Fr. George’s mother took charge, serving us stuffed eggplant and tomato soup.

While the meal was being eaten the sad news came that a suicide bomber had killed himself and at least twelve others — the next day the number was fifteen — at a pizza restaurant in west Jerusalem, not far from the guest house where I was staying.

“It is terrible news,” Rose Saga said. “It is the first bomb in Jerusalem since the intifada started. The Israelis will certainly respond heavily. It’s not safe in Beit Jala. You had better leave.” This meant putting off till a future time a visit planned for that day with her family.

Rose accompanied me to the square where the taxi stand is located. There would be one taxi with green plates to take me as far as the checkpoint near Tantur, then a walk across the border with my western passport, then another taxi with yellow plates into Jerusalem.

I told Rose on parting how much the visit had meant to me.

“No one comes here without his life being changed,” she replied.

* * *

addendum:

Shortly after midnight on August 28, just 18 days after my visit, Israeli forces entered Beit Jala, taking up positions in various buildings, including the Church of the Virgin Mary, the Arab Orthodox Club, a Lutheran-sponsored orphanage, a girls’ school, and several homes. One Palestinian policeman was killed and ten Palestinians wounded. The occupation followed sniper fire from Beit Jala aimed at nearby Gilo. Israel radio said 31 apartments were damaged. Israeli troops responded with heavy machine gun and tank fire, then sent in tanks, armored personnel carriers and bulldozers.”

Israelis imprisoned more than 40 people in houses that were used as bases.

As the Israelis blasted away with machine guns from the upper stories of his lavish home, Sami Shehadeh, 27, a lawyer, was held under guard for two days in a bedroom with relatives, half of them children. “It was really frightening because the shooting was coming from inside our house. We were flat on our bellies, and had no way of knowing what was going on around us.”

In her house, 12-year-old Razan Rabiyeh said she held a Bible and a small wooden cross during the attack “in order to feel protected.”

Reached by mobile phone during the attack, Father George Shawan said he was speaking not from his home but a tiny dwelling which in recent days had been crammed with children as young as two, hiding from gun battles. “If President Bush read the Bible well, he would not be sending missiles and bombs to fall on us.”

The Independent, a British newspaper, reported that “while life continued as normal in the Gilo, the Arabs in the old villas across the valley — many of them middle-class professionals who used to work with Israelis — did not seek this conflict and have long resented the Palestinian gunmen who have been coming in to fire at settlers.”

“The takeover is a tragedy for residents of Beit Jala … the least likely people to take arms against Israel,” another British daily, The Telegraph reported. It quoted a Beit Jala resident saying: “We cannot tell the [Palestinian] gunmen to go away. They do not listen. They tell us that Beit Jala is no better than anywhere else, and we should share the suffering of the struggle.”

The occupation ended on its third day.

– JF

published in the summer 2001 issue of In Communion / addendum re Beit Jala’s occupation added 25 August 2001