Quiet nights have returned to Bethlehem after the Israeli withdrawal from the area on the 20th. No more waking up to the roaring tanks, sudden burst of explosions and shootings, or not being able to sleep in anticipation of military operations. The first evening after the withdrawal, the streets in downtown Bethlehem were full of cars and people, enjoying their limited freedom for the first time in months.
A few weeks preceding the withdrawal, Israeli military continued with their frequent 'visits' to Dheisheh - operations not worthy of news coverage for the smallness of their scale compared to invasions in the cities north of West Bank or earlier stages of this invasion. One afternoon, during a lifting of the curfew, an APC shot small children playing in front of Ibdaa Cultural Center, while tossing teargas in passing. Two brothers, ages 5 and 7, were playing soccer when rubber-coated metal bullets struck them. One of them broke his hand and another was bleeding from his arm where the bullet lodged. I heard the shots from inside from Ibdaa, but a shooting was such a normal thing we continued on with our conversation. Several minutes later word of injuries reached us, and I followed a nurse friend of mine rushing to a nearby clinic. There I saw the two small boys, speechless, scared, and visibly in a state of shock as they were treated. One evening, following another intense shooting, soldiers banged on our door at Ibdaa, forcing one of the young staff members to accompany them as a translator for house searches, or to be more exact, to become a human shield. Internationals staying at Ibdaa insisted that one of us accompany him until the soldiers gave up. Another night, a tank rolled into Dheisheh, smashing all that was in its way, including my friend Kamal's car that was completely flattened. Like most people here, Kamal is financially struggling and the family really needed the car. Another night was a 4-hour incursion by APCs and foot soldiers, which broke into 2 houses right next to Ibdaa and beat up family members, while shooting intensely. We were trapped in Ibdaa, on the ground floor and in a corridor away from windows, as shooting continued on very close to us. Next morning, I went out to see bullet marks on outside walls of the building.
Such stories are numerous, and each one of them constitutes a war crime as defined in international humanitarian and human rights law. But they go unreported and undocumented, for they have become such frequent and normal occurrences.
The night of withdrawal, we were still skeptical if Israelis were really going to leave. "So what if they did," one of my friends said. "It's better to have curfew, because everyone is forced to sit at home, unable to go anywhere regardless. When the curfew is gone, people will have to confront the fact that they are sitting at home because they are jobless, broke, and have no prospects for making their lives better."
Yesterday, second day after the withdrawal, a father of the family I am close to said: "There is nothing beautiful to see in life anymore. Israelis have destroyed everything." Such was a comment so uncharacteristic of him - a positive, energetic, charismatic and respected man - I was astonished. He had been very depressed lately his daughters were suspecting there might be some serious problems, possibly beyond being unemployed. Mother of the family whispered after he left: "This situation is very difficult for many men like him. There is nothing to do, and they feel useless when they want to be doing something for themselves and families."
I am yet to find in the Bethlehem area a street that is free of treads of APCs or an edge of a sidewalk not chipped by tanks. Physical destructions are everywhere, and so are slow inner destructions in the minds of people, exhausted from endless siege, military assaults and devastated economy. Even after the withdrawal, Israeli tanks have returned to the street in front of Dheisheh at least twice. The families with house demolition orders still spend every night without knowing if they would be forced to leave in the middle of the night with an announced arrival of the Israeli army. Even though they are not present in the streets of Bethlehem, Israeli army still encircles the area from all directions, putting communities under the endless siege, keeping the economy halted and most of my friends in Dheisheh unemployed.