Rhonda Spivak, an attorney and a writer, is a member of the Canadian and Israel Bar Associations.
It was a hot Friday afternoon on August 7, when I went to Bethlehem on. I didn’t have a press card since I hadn’t expected to go and hadn’t arranged for one in advance.
Not only was the temperature hot, but so was the political climate as Fatah’s Sixth General Assembly, which convened for the first time in 20 years, was taking place.
Bethlehem is not very far from Jerusalem, but it is surrounded by the security fence, such that in order to get in through the main entrance, one must drive through what looks like an international border crossing.
There is another “back route” to Bethlehem via the village of Beit Jalla through a smaller Beit Jalla checkpoint, which is just behind the large Malcha shopping centre in Jerusalem. Palestinians from Bethlehem can never exit through this point, but East Jerusalem Arabs can go in and out of Bethlehem through this route, by passing a check point, but not needing a special permit.
Wearing a bright red t-shirt and cap both of which said Canada on them, I entered Bethlehem through this Beit Jalla route with an Arab driver from East Jerusalem.
As we started to descend a hill, there was a large red sign saying that it was illegal for Israelis to enter past this point. I could enter since I was Canadian. From this point on, I was under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
Earlier that day, I had spoken to Hanna Senior, a Christian Palestinian who in 2003 was appointed to by Yasser Arafat to be Palestinian Ambassador to the United States, Seniora had said, and “Palestinian police and security has been highly upgraded.”
The streets of Bethlehem were teaming with Special Forces had been deployed all around the city to prevent intra-Fatah clashes and possible sabotage of the convention by Hamas. Practically every car on the street was a police-car- white jeeps and black jeeps with PA insignias, police cars and police motorcycles and light blue traffic cars. The InterContinental hotel where PA President Mahmoud Abbas was staying was surrounded by Special Forces. I gave a seriously armed PA security policeman my Canada hat as we drove by the Intercontinental.
There were very few tourists or Palestinians on the streets, other than the police.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, Director of the Cytogenetics laboratories at Bethlehem’s university, mocked the fact that the convention was held with the co-operation of Israel. As he said, “The convention sets a historical precedent where [Fatah] a supposed revolutionary movement holds a convention while under the occupation by the people they are trying to be liberated from, with the permission of those people.”
Qumsiyeh said he didn’t believe in the two state solution, a Palestinian state along side a Jewish state. Instead he believed there should be only “one secular democratic state” for all of the people between the Mediterranean and Jordan River – a state where the Palestinians will be a majority, and the Jews are a minority.
“There should be no privilege, no choseness…”, he said.
When I responded that there was no support for this one state solution among Israeli Jews, Qumsiyeh said, “So what?” He added that over time people’s views change.
“Twenty years ago Israelis didn’t recognize such things as a Palestinian state or negotiations with the PLO, but that changed…As a scientist [I think] that a one state solution has a 1000 times more probability of happening and meeting the needs of the communities that are here, than a two state solution.”
His comments did not make me feel hopeful at all.
The presence of Yasser Arafat could be felt in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, as huge poster of Yasser Arafat was plastered over the main building for the convention which opened on Arafat’s birthday. Bethlehem’s mains street had only a couple of smaller posters of PA President Abbas.. As a 38 year old Palestinian Ra’id, who I met in Beit Jalla told me, “Abbas is not as charismatic as Arafat was.”
In front of the Sababa Restaurant, Fatah delegates were congregating, under a cloud of cigarette smoke, and I met Fadel Younis, one of the 2000 Fatah delegates attending the convention, who is from Tulkarem.
“We want to build our own state beside the Israeli state.” But he also said that but if Fatah failed to get what it wants from negotiations, all options are open.
“… we are pessimistic because Israelis don’t want peace…But if they insist to continue the occupation and confiscate land and continue to make Jerusalem a Jewish city,…there are different means of struggle…. we have to find a different way…. we will fight. We were guerilla fighters, we know how to struggle by arms.”
Younis, born in Haifa, joined Fatah in 1969 and “became a military officer”,and was asked “ to smuggle weapons from Syria, through the sea to Akko”.
“I succeeded two times…but then I got caught on my third attempt. I went to jail in Israeli prisons in Ramle an Ashkelon…Do you know how long I was in prison? Guess,” he asked.
“ For 16 years”, he answered proudly. “From 1965-1985. I was released when there was a prisoner exchange [in May1985, in the Jibril agreement where well over 1000 prisoners were exchanged for a handful of captured Israelis].”
When Younis said “16 years,” I got a chill up my spine-since it generally means killing someone or being an accessory to murder.
After 1985, Younis went to Jordan, and came back to “Palestine” with Arafat after the Oslo Accords and “ retired two years ago as a Brigadier General.”
His eyes opened wide as he said“ George Bush was a criminal, a blood sucker, a Dracula,… but Obama is a different person-Obama has asked to freeze settlements…”
Younis had harsh words for the Arab world.” The Arab world is against us, especially Saudi Arabia….They keep talking about liberating Palestine but they are liars. Everything they did and are doing now is against us.”
The day we spoke there was a row at the Fatah Convention about what to do about the voting rights of 100’s of Fatah delegates from Gaza, who were banned by Hamas from leaving Gaza and couldn’t attend the conference.
Younis said “They [Hamas] made a big mistake. They wanted to make the convention fail-but it will succeed… Fatah delegates will be able to vote through the internet, or by phone…”
My East Jerusalem driver was getting anxious about hanging out on the street, and whisked me into his friend’s store, Johnny’s Souvenir shop. I was offered coffee or tea and it be came increasingly clear that I ought to make a few purchases.
According to Seniora, “40% of Bethlehem is made up of Christian Palestinians,” like the Canavatti family. Both the Canavatti brothers and Seniora told me that Bethlehem’s tourism was “no good,” since Bethlehem is cut of from Jerusalem and also because of the economic recession.
“Usually the hotels here are empty, the only reason they are full today, is because of the Fatah convention. When tour groups come they don’t stay overnight. They come to see the churches and leave.”
As we were talking, Michal Abed Rabbo, another Fatah delegate walked into the shop. When I asked who will be elected to Fatah’s decision making bodies, he answered with a sheepish grin,” The same ones will get in”, but he added that hopefully there would be some “new blood.”
Rabbo wasn’t sure whether former Palestinian security commander Mohammed Dahlan, age 47, and Marwahn Barghouti, age 50, (in an Israeli prison serving five life sentences for perpetrating five terror attacks in which 13 people were murdered and another 49 years for an attempted murder) would be elected as member’s of Fatah’s central committee.
“I think that if it the delegated from Gaza that couldn’t get here get to vote[by phone or email] then Dahlan will get in, but if not, it is doubtful. Barghouti is popular…”
A few days later, the results show both Dahlan and Barghouti were elected.
My Arab driver was anxious to leave, “It’s not a good day with all the police.” On the way we pass by a traffic circle with bright coloured depictions-one has a map of all of pre-67 Israel and the West Bank, which says “Palestine”, another indicates that Palestinians ought to be united, and another depicts Jerusalem as Palestine. The sentiments of the street were awfully clear.
A School Called Hope
On leaving Bethlehem, I pass by Hope Flower’s School, co-directed by brother and sister Ibrahim Issa, and Ghada Issa Gabboun. Their father, Hussein Issa, founded the school in 1984 after he brought his children out of Aida refugee camp. The school was one of a kind. Before the intifada, the school, which preached tolerance and co-existence, had 550 students- Jewish Israelis (from Jerusalem), and Moslems and Christians (from Bethlehem, Hebron and Jerusaelm).
Ibrahim Issa said that his father even hired an orthodox Jewish woman from Jerusalem to come teach the children Hebrew.
As he said, “My family is Muslim, but we were raised as an inter-faith household…We are refugees from Ramle. Ours was the only school in Palestine that taught Hebrew and Jewish -Israeli culture. My father started to teach the history of the Holocaust. He did all of this in the mid-eighties at a time when it was forbidden to speak about peace and reconciliation.”
Issa added that his father was “considered to be a collaborator by the PA and a lot of fanatic Palestinian groups.”
“His life was threatened. From 1994-2000, he was always put in jail by the PA. They’d take him in for one or two days. Palestinian fanatic groups threw Molotov cocktails at the school bus and our driveway… My father died when he was 52. He had a heart attack two days after he left jail. It’s important for us as a family to keep his project alive,” Issa continued.
Today the school has only 250 children.