Christmas came and went in Bethlehem, without elaborate festivities. Streets were deserted, and most shops kept their shutters down. Images on TV of joyous celebrations from around the world were the furthest away realities from the very city that Jesus was born.
Within the city of Bethlehem, a mere 2-minute drive from the Church of Nativity, is an impoverished neighborhood of Beit Jibrin, the smallest of the 59 Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East. The 2,000 inhabitants of the camp were struggling to survive the destruction caused by the 10-day Israeli invasion of the city in late October. Day and night, shells and bullets had rained down on this small strip of land packed with fragile concrete houses and narrow alleys.
On the day of Christmas Eve, I went to visit Al-Azzah family in Beit Jibrin. I had worked with their sons who run Wa'ad (Promise) Center, a small grassroots organization to serve the camp's children. I had been treated numerous times with homemade meals of Umm Yunis, mother of the family, in their modest yet comfortably arranged home. I had heard their home had caught on fire from shelling during the invasion.
Walking into the camp, I passed a house with an entire wall collapsed, exposing its interior like a doll house. An Israeli tank that forced its way onto the narrow alley had knocked it over. Although the rebuilding by the Palestinian Authority was in process, almost all structures - walls, fences, rooftop water tanks - bore marks from bullets and shells. Umm Yunis opened the door to my knock, slowly welcomed me in their son's living quarter on the first floor. The vibrant smile of a woman who had never missed a beat for her sharp remarks was not there. Her eyes didn't sparkle like they used to. Escaping the bullets and shelling that frequented their living quarter on the second floor, Umm Yunis and her husband Abu Yunis had been living downstairs for the past several months. Now, she told me, they had nowhere to return upstairs.
Umm Yunis took my hand and led me up the staircase. Stepping into their house, I held my breath. Their living room was covered entirely with soot, glasses had fallen off burned window frames, charred remains of furniture scattered around, and every wall had mercilessly been punctured with bullets and shells. Moving her tired body slowly from corner to corner, holding my hand, she reminded me of color and smell of what had been there before - Umm Yunis' life since she was expelled from her village of Beit Jibrin (now an Israeli kibbutz and natural park of Beit Guvrin) in 1948. "Right here there were framed family photos. Many of my tatriz (Palestinian embroidery) works were hung here. Now it's gone. Gone. Everything." At the center of room was a pile of salvaged goods - plates, books, some clothes - mostly broken, and all covered in soot.
From room to room, Umm Yunis took me through. The bathroom, kitchen, bedrooms - not a single space had been spared the destruction. Workers were plastering over numerous shell holes. I stood in front of a closet riddled with bullets. The clothes still hang inside, but all torn. Umm Yunis rubbed each piece gently - "This is Abu Yunis' new jacket, he only wear it once. This shirt was for my son 'Ala." She points out of the window, to half-destroyed Paradise Hotel that towered over the camp from across the street - "It all came from there." What used to be one of the most luxurious hotels in Bethlehem was taken over by Israel army as soon as they entered the city, using it as the base for military offensive.
During the invasions, Umm Yunis' sons, daughters, and grandchildren took refuge to a relatively safer neighboring village. Umm Yunis and her husband insisted that they stayed. "We left in 1948, and in 1967. We will never leave to be made refugees again." Yet the downstairs quarter was not safe either, as numerous holes on the walls the cracked windows testified. Once a bullet zapped by Umm Yunis as she was preparing a meal for Abu Yunis, landed on a coffee pot that hang on the wall. She fell on floor, crawled for life to the back room. For an entire week that Israelis disconnected phone and electricity, in the sound of falling shell that vibrated the entire camp around the clock, Umm Yunis and Abu Yunis lived only with water, crawling from room to room.
"Something changed forever inside the people of the camp after the invasion," Azzah, Umm Yunis' son told me later as we sat in Wa'ad Center, crowded with children playing games. "Three people in our camp were killed in those 10 days, while so many more were injured. But more than anything, the children will never forget the moment when the tank entered the camp - the moment that their space was forever violated and their sense of security was collapsed. So many of them now suffer from symptoms like bedwetting and nightmares."
Yet Azzah smiles that recent donations from overseas would enable the expansion of the center, overflowing with children who lack space for enjoyment elsewhere in the camp. "We will start building a second floor as soon as possible." I think of Rachel's Tomb, an Israeli military camp right outside of the camp. The presence of Israeli occupation makes another military incursion a realistic and imminent threat. What if the new second floor gets shelled?
But it will not stop the Palestinian from living their lives. Life has to go on. It is like Umm Yunis' laundry I walked by on my way out of their home. On the cloth line hang her thoub, an embroidered traditional Palestinian dress commonly worn by older women. "It had to be rinsed over and over, because it was so blackened by soot," she touched the still-wet thoub, torn all over with bullet holes. I know she will mend it, and wear it again proudly.