[ Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5. The comment thread for all parts is available here. If you're wondering about the lack of photos in this final installment, the Israeli military took my last roll of film and never returned it; the images I've included below came from other sources. If you're curious you can read more accounts of the action at the Church of the Nativity here, here or here. ]
I checked in to the hostel in Jerusalem, feeling a bit adrift and melancholy. Everyone I had been traveling with up to that point had either left or had drifted off to other areas, and there were few internationals in the hostel that early in the afternoon. I was just thinking about going out for lunch when I decided to give Huwaida Arraf of the ISM a quick call, to see if there were any actions planned in the next few days. She said there was an action planned, at the Church of the Nativity, but not in the next few days—they were set to head out to Bethlehem in two minutes. I blanched. It would be a 15-minute walk at least to where the buses were staging, and I really did need to take a day off; would it even be worth trying to make the walk? I told her I would try, but in fact I was still trying to make up my mind about it.
Then my conscience kicked in. This was exactly why I'd come to Palestine, and I'd been hoping to be involved in an action at the church ever since I'd arrived. The Israelis had put the church under siege in the first days of their invasion after some Palestinians sought refuge there, and they had maintained the siege over the protests of the international community and the Catholic Church. The people inside—including nuns, priests, and monks in addition to the Palestinians—were running out of food and water, and the situation for them was desperate. Israeli snipers had killed several people in and around the church, including the bell ringer. The people trapped in the church needed whatever help they could get. So I threw my things back into my bag and headed over to Jaffa gate, fully expecting that they would be gone by the time I got there. But they weren't—the buses were just filling up with a good-sized group of internationals. I had made it in time. I didn't realize it then, but at that moment my fate was sealed.
We headed over to Bethlehem and met up with more people near the Indymedia offices there. I was happy to see Jeff standing there—we had lost track of each other in Hebron, and it was good to be back together for this action. All told there were about 25 of us, and we began making plans for the action. We would split into three groups: a group who would be trying to get inside to act as human shields for the people there, a "media" group, and a group which would act as support for the entry group.
I was in this third group; our purpose would be to stand in front of the door, blocking the view of any Israeli snipers as the entry group made its way inside, so that the snipers would not be able to get a shot at anyone inside the church. All of us would be carrying food and water for the people inside.
After some waiting we set out down the streets of Bethlehem. Our group had a close call with an APC, but an alert from the person in the lead gave us just enough time to flatten ourselves against nearby buildings as it passed. It didn't seem that the crew had noticed us—a lucky break. We continued walking rapidly toward the church, carrying our bags of food and protest signs. Some Palestinian boys started talking to us as children so often did, but a man came up and quieted them, a serious look on his face. He looked at me, and I could see in his eyes that he knew who we were and had guessed what we were doing.
As we approached the press area in front of the church, walking rapidly, a reporter asked us "Are you going in?" When we said we were, she went running up ahead of us to make sure she got it on film. The other reporters saw the action and started stirring as well.
My group passed the press area and went around the side of the barrier there, just under a handmade "NO ENTRY" sign. I did not even notice the sign at the time because I was so focused on the action; it was only in looking at a picture after the event that I saw it directly above our heads.
As the other groups approached Manger Square, we started in. A group of internationals had tried to get supplies into the church a few days before and had taken the Israelis by surprise, and we felt certain that the area would be completely enclosed by tanks and APCs now, but we were surprised to find that that was not the case. We didn't stop to wonder about it. We walked as fast as we could across the square, fully expecting to hear gunshots ring out or to be greeted by concussion grenades or tear gas—but it appeared that we had caught the Israelis off guard again. Other than a few shouts of "Go back!", we met little resistance. We stepped over knee-height barbed wire, and then walked so quickly that an untrained eye might well call it "running" toward the Door of Humility. As the entry group approached I saw the door open, and internationals started going inside. I hurried up and handed in my bag filled with flour and rice, then turned around and held up a sign to try to block visual access to the door. In moments, everyone who was going in had made it inside and the door was closed; no matter what else happened, the action had been a success, and it would now be very difficult for the Israelis to launch a full-scale assault on the church. We stood there for a few moments longer holding our handmade signs in the air as the press took pictures, but when we saw Israeli soldiers beginning to mass near the entrance to the square we decided it was time to leave.
Too late, though. There were about 20-30 soldiers headed toward us, fast. As their crowd met ours, they started grabbing at us; I felt a viselike grip on my coat, and no matter how I twisted it wouldn't let go. Soon all of us had been caught up and we were being shuttled into the Peace Center, next door to the church. In little time, thirteen of us were standing together in a single room, guarded by Israeli soldiers.
Over the course of the next four hours, we were separated into groups of two and interrogated by the Israelis. My own interrogation (with a woman from the UK) was more boring than anything else, as the little man from the IDF asked us over and over which organization we belonged to. We just smiled and said that all we could tell him was our name and nationality. After 20 minutes of this he finally gave up, and the two of us were removed to another holding area to wait for whatever would come next. The soldiers watching us were a young group of paramedics, and over the course of the four hours we were with them we had a chance to talk in general terms about many things (though we would not discuss any details of the action, even with them). They were wary of us at first, but as we spoke they relaxed and opened up with us. They realized that despite our very different situations, we were really no different from them. When we broached the subject of Jenin, I was impressed to see that they did not try to deny or even excuse the atrocities that had occurred there. They said that some units in the military were more brutal than others, but that they themselves would never consider doing those things. I could sense that it was the truth, and it brought back some of the hope I had lost in Jenin itself.
Eventually the IDF commanders decided they were done with the interrogations, and we moved on to the next step. Our hands were bound. The lieutenant in charge of the paramedics put the plastic cuffs on my hands, and as he did so he said to me, "John, I am sorry for this, but if it has to be done I will do it myself." I respected his decency and humanity, and we shook hands before he put on the cuffs. I could only hope that someday he would see that the army in which he was serving was engaged in acts that no person of conscience should support, and perhaps even choose to join the hundreds of Israeli "refuseniks" in the IDF and the reserves who have declared that they will not support the occupation by serving in the West Bank or Gaza.
We were made to wait a while longer, and then we were herded out to an APC parked in Manger Square, one at a time. It was now midnight, and the darkness in the square was deep and foreboding. I was the first one taken out, and I had my only twinge of fear so far that day, knowing how many snipers there were in the square. I felt completely exposed; in the darkness anything seemed possible. I looked up and around nervously, but nothing happened. My concern turned to relief as I saw another international being marched out to the APC behind me, and then the rest.
We were all loaded in, and we started off. The night air was bracingly cold in the uninsulated APC. We shivered as we rode through the streets of Bethlehem, toward...where? Jerusalem, it seemed. In Jerusalem, the Israelis stopped the APC and ordered all the women out of it and into a waiting jeep. We were concerned about what would happen to them, and rightly so, since we later found that the Israelis had dropped each of them alone at various points around the city without maps, money, phones, or any indication of where they were. But for now we had our own future to consider as well.
The APC started out from Jerusalem slowly, in fits and starts, sitting motionless for many minutes at a stretch. We were becoming extremely cold and decided to huddle against each other as tightly as possible for warmth. It had been about 2am when we dropped off the women, and it was now pushing toward 6am. We didn't know our destination, but in looking out the window slats of the APC we could see that we were going toward Hebron. The irony of it was not lost on me.
Eventually the APC stopped for the final time, and we were herded out of it. We were made to sit on a sidewalk in the driving wind for 10 minutes or more, though there was a building not 30 feet away that would be our eventual destination—a little payback by the Israelis for the trouble we had caused them, no doubt. We shivered uncontrollably now. Luckily for me (and thanks to my incipient cold) I'd been wearing a sweatshirt and a light jacket, but even that helped little at this point, and I wondered if some of the men might not be starting into the first stages of hypothermia.
We were taken inside the building—a police station—and then taken, one by one, into a cell. It was now past 6am. There were six concrete "beds" (bunked) with only five thin cushions to place on them. The eight of us made do the best we could, with some of the men huddling together on the floor to try to get some sleep. Despite the conditions, our exhaustion ensured that we had no problem drifting off.
Unfortunately this break in the routine only lasted about an hour, after which the Israeli police came to the cell and woke us again. We were taken out one at a time and asked for identifying information. We demanded to know whether or not we were under arrest, to know what the charges were against us, and to get access to our lawyer; but the Israeli police were by turns confused and amused at these silly formalities. We did persuade them to let us make a few phone calls, but all we could reach were answering machines.
It went on this way for several hours. We were all exhausted, and some of the men took the chance to get a few more minutes of sleep. Finally the Israeli police came and told us that we'd be leaving. We were herded out of the cell and into two waiting police vans; they seemed like luxury accommodations compared to the APC we'd frozen in for 6 hours the night before. We started off on another long trip, ending up at an official building in Jerusalem—the first ray of hope in our journey so far, especially when some internationals started talking to us from outside the police van, taking our names and asking us how we were doing. We decided that this was progress compared to the jail in Hebron.
Inside the building, we were ushered into an office with a representative from the US Consulate. She told us that the Israelis planned to deport all of us, and that they'd already started the process. Since it was late on Friday, nearing the Sabbath, and the Israelis were about to leave for the day and the weekend, we had an immediate choice to make: we could challenge the deportation and spend a guaranteed 2-3 days in jail (with a strong possibility that it would stretch to 1-2 weeks), or we could leave immediately. Both Jeff and I had no choice in the matter—we had obligations in the States that meant we couldn't take the risk of an extended stay in an Israeli prison.
Although I chose to leave in this way, I actually changed my own plane ticket at my own expense, and the Israelis did not put any stamps or notations into my passport. I refused to sign the papers they prepared (in Hebrew, of course, not that I'd have signed them in any language). And we had never been charged with any crime, nor even formally arrested. So I still don't know if this "deportation" would stand up in a court of law, Israeli or otherwise. However, the Israelis were already turning away people at the airport just based on the suspicion that they might be coming to help the Palestinians; they had proudly announced that during the invasion they had turned away over 2000 people, many of them from aid groups or human rights groups. Deported or not, I would not be returning to see my Palestinian friends—not until they finally have their own state, that is. I can only hope the day will come soon.
We were taken to the airport and held in the charmingly named Refusal Office to wait out the hours before our flights departed. One of the guards, a young woman, decided to speak to me for a few minutes just before I left, and it was an illuminating conversation. Palestinians don't love their children or care if their children die, she told me; I thought of Khalil playing with his beautiful kids (my honorary niece and nephew), the children's play day in Jenin, the man fainting in Hebron at the funeral of his two sons. They are animals, she said, and the other guard (another young woman) nodded adamantly in agreement; I thought of all the smiles, handshakes, and hugs I'd received, the generosity and hospitality, and the graciousness in the face of terrible adversity. I asked her if she truly thought Palestinians were animals, and she responded, "Well, maybe not animals, but..."—and she trailed off, at a loss to find something that was not an animal but not quite a human being either. Despite the disinformation we hear in the US about Palestinian attitudes, not once during my trip did I hear a Palestinian talk in this way about Israelis, much less about Jews in general. In fact, I heard only the opposite. It was only from Israelis that I heard these kinds of racist sentiments, then and since.
Finally the moment came to leave, and I was taken to the plane to start the trip back to the US. And so one long, unbroken 60+ hour day after I'd awakened at the Al Ahlia hospital in Hebron, I found myself standing at the airport gate in the U.S., dead tired, sick, slightly dazed, and still amazed at the tremendous difference that that one little phone call from the hostel had made in my trip. My two weeks in the West Bank and Gaza had finally come to an end, albeit a completely different one from the one I had expected. My mind was awhirl, and I felt a shifting mixture of joy, melancholy, and exhilaration.
Had my trip made a difference? In the larger sense, of course, not much: the occupation would continue, and the Palestinians would continue to suffer, to struggle for their freedom and for the common dignity that is the birthright of every person on this planet. But I knew it had been worthwhile, no matter how small or symbolic my contributions had been. If nothing else it had been worth it to let the Palestinians see that not all Americans support what is being done to them with US funding and political backing. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I could go back in time two weeks, knowing what I knew now, I would not hesitate to make the same trip again.