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'Alive Dead People' Living in a Paralyzed Bethlehem

Siege: Curfew keeps residents confined to their homes. Garbage and sewage fill streets. Troops patrol, tossing grenades.

April 16, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Locked inside his home in this holy town, Hassan Dalou finds it hard to believe that for two weeks, the Israeli army has controlled the garbage-choked streets outside his front door and enforced a curfew so strict that it has created food shortages.

Just down the road from the home where he and his family have lived for generations, a grim standoff between the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen barricaded inside the Church of the Nativity continues, holding Bethlehem hostage.

Daily life has been paralyzed by the large deployment of troops around the 4th century sanctuary, built on the site where Christians believe that Jesus was born, and into the streets radiating from it.

Living so close to the church, Dalou said, "I thought I was safe."

Bethlehem residents have largely been confined to their homes, allowed out only four times in two weeks to dash to food stores, where supplies are dwindling.

When they go into the streets, they find themselves maneuvering around mounds of rotting garbage, through rivulets of raw sewage and past the burned-out carcasses of cars.

Two years ago, Bethlehem shone as the crown jewel of Palestinian tourism. The city attracted hundreds of millions of dollars for development and restoration from international donors in the run-up to the millennium. The money was spent on restoring Bethlehem's ancient old city, upgrading electricity, water and sewage systems and building hotels and other tourist facilities.

"We had a new look for the town," said Nuha Khoury, a professor of medieval Islamic studies at Bethlehem University who lives across the street from the destroyed offices of the Palestinian Authority. "Bethlehem was trying to become a cultural center for the Palestinians, and in the year 2000, this town was booming.

"Now," she said sadly, "it is all destroyed in two weeks. Now death rules this area."

Economic, Spiritual Ruin in the City

Nearly 19 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting and the army's reoccupation have wrecked the city's infrastructure and deeply scarred the psyches of its residents.

Khoury said she has conversations all the time with students who deeply admire the bombers who are strapping on explosives and blowing themselves up in crowds of Israelis.

"I ask them: What if there is a Palestinian Einstein among these young people who have died?" said Khoury, 40. "The question for us as Bethlehemites is, how are we going to rebuild? What will it cost--and not just economically but spiritually?"

Khoury and other residents complain that their plight has been eclipsed by the focus on more than 100 militants, along with priests, monks, nuns and Palestinian officials, who have been holed up inside the Church of the Nativity since April 2. The Israelis are demanding that the gunmen lay down their arms, surrender and face trial in Israel or go into exile. The gunmen say they have no intention of allowing Israel to determine their fate.

Outside the church, dramas play out daily in the streets. Parents hurry along deserted roads, their brows knit with worry, carrying children to doctors or clinics in defiance of the curfew. Other parents send toddlers into the streets to fetch food from neighbors or relatives, betting that soldiers won't shoot at pint-size curfew violators.

As the curfew continues, residents say, they are finding it hard to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products, as stores have trouble getting deliveries from Israel or other parts of the West Bank.

"My mother," said Khoury, "is baking her own bread for the first time in her life because many of the bakeries simply have stopped opening when the curfew is lifted."

Tanks rumbling down narrow cobblestoned streets have crushed dozens of cars. Electrical lines and sewage pipes have been destroyed. Public buildings and private homes have been badly damaged, and some have been reduced to rubble.

A trio of white dirigibles equipped with cameras floats high above Manger Square, the site in previous years of joyous Christmas pageantry, fueling rumors that Israel will soon lose patience with the gunmen and storm the church.

From inside the church, Palestinians warn that Israel will provoke a blood bath if it sends in troops.

The Dalous have suffered both material damage and trauma as the standoff has worn on. All the windowpanes of the home, where Dalou lives with his wife, four children and elderly parents, were blown out during the first days of fighting.

The children sleep on mattresses laid on the floor of the living room. But Dalou's parents refused to abandon their bedroom. "My father is 90 years old, and he said, 'Son, I do not fear death,' " Dalou said. " 'Let me sleep in my own bed.' "

An auto upholsterer, Dalou stapled fabric to the window frames in his parents' bedroom to keep out the cold.

There has been little fighting for days now, he said, but on Sunday, explosions rocked the family home again as Israeli troops walked down the street, tossing hand grenades into crushed cars.

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