Suffering That Gets Us Nowhere

by Sami Adwan

MONDAY, APRIL 1: Today began before yesterday ended. We stayed up in our home watching television news until 2:30 a.m. to find out what was happening down the street in Bethlehem, because after Friday's Israeli army assault on Ramallah we were afraid to go outside and see for ourselves. When I finally got to bed, I stirred every time I heard an Israeli fighter plane or helicopter.

This morning was strangely quiet. The telephone woke me. It was my Israeli friend and colleague, Dan. I teach education at Bethlehem University and Dan and I are co-directors of an organization devoted to changing negative attitudes among Palestinians and Israelis. We do oral histories and are developing a joint narrative for new schoolbooks. We were supposed to discuss our project today and he suggested we meet at some tents we set up last week where people can go to fast for peace, located about 200 meters from an Israeli checkpoint.

I told him I wasn't sure I could make it. But later, when I drove with my 17-year-old daughterDima to buy bread, we decided to try to get there, avoiding tanks along the way. When I got close, I called him on the cellphone and asked him to walk to us so we wouldn't have to go to the checkpoint. Two Israeli military vehicles got to me first and soldiers told me through loudspeakers that there was a curfew. It was just after noon, and that was the first I had heard of it. My daughter, who was shivering and pale, told me that her heart had gone down to her legs, an Arabic expression.

Dan came over to my car, we talked briefly. Dima and I returned home with bread and chickens and told my wife where we had gone. She was very upset. We said nothing happened. She said, What if? What if?

We watched the television for news about the Israeli military's operations in Ramallah and the siege of President Yasser Arafat. Tanks are gathering outside Bethlehem, too. We have the feeling that it's coming to us anytime.

On TV, Dima saw an Israeli reservist hugging his children. She said, "Now he will come, and after an hour or so start shooting at Palestinian children." She has written three poems expressing her anger. One starts, Why are you shooting from the skies/And killing everyone in Palestine and everything that flies/Why are you killing our dream/And letting our mothers scream . . .

The younger children are happy because there will be no school tomorrow. I'm supposed to teach but I don't know whether classes will be held. And I'm having trouble preparing.

Sometimes it seems there's as much chaos in the house as outside it. In addition to my daughter, we have five boys, one of whom is in college in Pennsylvania. I call the four youngest -- Hamza, 5, Anas, 10, Mo'ath, 11 and Mohammad, 15 -- the gang. They are making the house a mess and are fighting like dogs and cats. It's only to be expected. Iremind my wife that children have lots of energy and we're not allowing them to go outside. I've been eating a lot today. When I get depressed I eat a lot.

Dan told me, if I am detained, he would organize a group of friends and walk from Jerusalem to see me. That would be a courageous thing to do. I told him that I hope he will not need to.

TUESDAY, APRIL 2: Last night an aircraft hovered overhead for about an hour. After that, we heard shooting. Early this morning, the tanks moved in from the northeast, the direction of Jerusalem, and there were clashes at the north and south entrances to the city.

We live in Beit Jala, close to the north entrance of Bethlehem. Our home, in the bottom two floors of a four-story building, is a little more than a mile from Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, where some clergymen and resistance fighters are surrounded by Israeli tanks. I can hear the shooting. And on the three local TV stations, I can see the pictures.

We couldn't leave the house all day. The electricity went off this morning for an hour. Other than that, we've spent the day watching the news, eating, looking out from behind doors.At one point I asked my son to change the channel. He got upset and threw the remote control on the floor and broke it. Now we get up to change channels.

At lunch, we told the children to eat until they're only half full so we don't run out of food. We argued about that. I would say we have enough food for about four or five days, including cans of tuna fish, garbanzo beans and lentils.

We are scared about what might happen tonight. This is the first night we are under siege. During the day, most of the activity has been around the Church of the Nativity. The local news said that a mosque opposite, where I sometimes go on Fridays, burned and the fire department was not allowed to put it out.

My children have been playing war games on the computer. One chooses the Americans, the others Koreans or Chinese. I'm afraid they are hooked into a war culture. War is destructive and self destructive: I can hit you on the cheek and you can hit me on the other cheek. I can bring suffering to you and you can bring suffering to me, and this suffering is getting us nowhere.

The situation is so unclear. I feel the Israelis will stay a long time, which will reinstate the relationship of occupier and the occupied. I'm worried about how it will affect my work, especially with Dan.

One of my Israeli acquaintances called me and asked if there was anything he could do to help us. I said, go tell Sharon to go back to the negotiating table. We had a short, sad laugh.

My oldest son, Tariq, called today from Pennsylvania. He was crying. My wife started crying, too.

I can hear the tanks, but I can't see them. They're moving now.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 3: The curfew was lifted from noon to 4 p.m. today. We didn't hear about it until we saw our neighbors' cars moving. The children got all dressed up, ready for a trip, and we went out to buy some food. We drove slowly. We didn't see any tanks, but a few cars were smashed, garbage was piled up and the streets were mostly deserted.

We went to the Beit Jala market. The fruits looked old and soft. We bought a few oranges and cucumbers. Later, we found the oranges were spoiled on the inside.

We found an open bakery, with a crowd of people waiting for the oven to warm up, which would take about an hour and a half. By that time the curfew would be on again. We decided not to wait. My smallest son wanted schnitzel, and we went to two or three butcher's shops but didn't find any. He was upset. I said maybe tomorrow.

Today was the first day I was able to talk with my neighbors. One story is particularly upsetting. A lady around 60 and her son were killed by a bomb inside a house in Bethlehem, and people were not allowed to go and bury them. Because it is so hard for people and ambulances to move around, three doctors put their phone numbers up on the local TV station so people could consult them by phone.

In accordance with our new rationing policy, my wife didn't cook any new food today. We ate leftover chicken, rice, eggplant, cauliflower and potatoes. Sometimes this dish is better the second day.

I've known worse hardship. I was in an Israeli jail once for five months. I was active in the Fatah movement in the first intifada. I helped establish an employee union at Hebron University and was its president for five years. In 1991, I was arrested and held in what we called Ansar 3 and what Israelis called Kitziot in the Negev desert. Ansar means people getting together in solidarity; when the prophet Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina he was received by people known as the ansar who gave him food and clothing. Here, Ansar 1 referred to a jail in south Lebanon. Ansar 2 to one in Gaza.

Those five months gave me time to contemplate. One incident: A soldier tried to get me to sign a statement in Hebrew, which at that time I couldn't read. I told him I wouldn't sign it for that reason. He insisted. Then another soldier, who had been listening, started arguing with him outside. They must have argued about whether to force me to sign. Later, someone translated the statement for me. It said I was a high-ranking activist in Fatah and a threat to the security of the state of Israel.

Their argument made me think that the "enemy" has more than one face, and made me think about finding ways for a peaceful solution.

I'm worried about my files and computer at the university, which the Israeli army entered today for the first time ever. People living on campus told me by phone they're searching classrooms and offices.

THURSDAY, APRIL 4: We are Christians and Muslims living here in Beit Jala and Bethlehem. Some homes have crosses or statues of St. George, others have pictures of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Today I did not cross the doorstep. The curfew was not lifted at all. The two floors above us are under construction and we worry that Israeli troops will think someone is hiding there. So we opened the window shutters upstairs so anyone could see it was empty.

We watched the news about President Bush sending Secretary of State Colin Powell here next week. I wanted him to come immediately to save lives on both sides before Sharon finishes whatever he wants. Also, Palestinians will not accept it if Powell does not meet Arafat.

From the small hill where we live, I see a flash then hear two booms near the Church of the Nativity. I hear machine guns and see a "lightning bomb" used to illuminate the sky and area below.

Bush said that Arafat brought this upon himself by not stopping the suicide bombers. I feel that for six months or more, Arafat hasn't had the power to control the situation. A lot of Palestinian military factions are not taking orders from him.

Personally, I have difficulty understanding what goes through the minds of people who blow themselves up among people. On the other hand, Palestinian reality is so harsh, the bombers have lost sight of their future. They feel they are dying anyway and prefer to do it this way so they're remembered, or at least talked about.

My son tells me there's a plane coming or maybe an Apache helicopter. The children can distinguish the aircraft. Every morning they look on the Internet to see pictures of the weapons, and I find a different one on the computer screen saver every morning.

I was supposed to go to Germany in a few days to finish editing a book I'm co-authoring about textbooks. The trip doesn't seem likely. Even if I can go, would it be safe to leave the family behind?

FRIDAY, APRIL 5: This morning we ventured out for prayers at a mosque that is about 150 meters east of our house, near the Aida refugee camp. I took three of the children; Hamza stayed home with my wife. There were 100 to 200 people there. Not crammed. It lasted about an hour. The imam talked about the situation, helping our neighbors with food or medical treatment, and donating money to the poor. He emphasized that wars hurt all human beings. We ended by combining midday and late afternoon prayers, permissible in wartime.

At home, we ate a lunch of soup and stuffed zucchini; my wife announced we're having the same tomorrow. She doesn't think the situation will end in a few days.

The curfew was lifted for four hours this afternoon, but Dima and my wife refused to let me go out because they heard that snipers were shooting at cars. Our neighbors went out to buy food, though there wasn't much to buy: canned goods and toilet paper.

I heard on the TV news that the Israeli government plans to reopen Ansar 3 in the Negev. This brought back memories of the high walls, barbed wire and tents. Nothing lives there except birds, poisonous snakes and big scorpions.

I read e-mails and talked on the phone much of the day. I called a friend at the Palestinian Ministry of Education in Ramallah, but couldn't get through. I heard from a friend that my visa for Germany is ready in Jerusalem. It is a one-year multiple-entry visa, but I don't know when I'll be able to pick it up or use it.

It's about 10:30 at night now. I hear the tanks starting to move again, somewhere near the middle of Bethlehem.

Share Episode

Shortened URL


is associate professor at the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC and executive director of the Salaam Institute for Peace & Justice.

is an associate professor in the faculty of Education at Bethlehem University.