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FROM BETHLEHEM TO GAZA


On 2 April 2002, the Israeli army reoccupied the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Fahmi Kan'an was among the 250 people who took refuge in the Church of the Nativity. He then was among the 26 deported to Gaza. Here he tells the story. "My home is distant 200 meters only from the Church of the Nativity. I was born in Bethlehem on 1st June 1971. Now I am 39. "I was arrested for the first time in 1988 during the 1st uprising. I only was 17. From 1987 to 1996 I went five times in jail. I was arrested, released and rearrested... five times. In total I spent three years and three months in jail...


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FROM BETHLEHEM TO GAZA

by Flora Nicoletta

Photo: Fahmi Kan'an at a sit-in at the ICRC, Gaza City, October 2010.


October 28, 2010

On 2 April 2002, the Israeli army reoccupied the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Fahmi Kan'an was among the 250 people who took refuge in the Church of the Nativity. He then was among the 26 deported to Gaza. Here he tells the story.


"My home is distant 200 meters only from the Church of the Nativity. I was born in Bethlehem on 1st June 1971. Now I am 39.

"I was arrested for the first time in 1988 during the 1st uprising. I only was 17. From 1987 to 1996 I went five times in jail. I was arrested, released and rearrested... five times. In total I spent three years and three months in jail.

"When I was freed in 1996, the Palestinian Authority was in control of Bethlehem. I was informed by the PA that the Israelis wanted to arrest me. So, why did they release me?

"I got married in 1997. Awatef, my wife, is from Halloul, in the Hebron region. Before the marriage, I told her everything. I told her I had been in 15 Israeli jails, I was wanted, I could be arrested or killed any time. Nevertheless, she accepted to marry me.

"She was studying Religion at Hebron University, she was at the second year. When she came to live in Bethlehem, she continued to go to Hebron University even when she was pregnant... 30 minutes' drive away from home. And when our son Mohammad was born, my mother looked after Mohammad while my wife was at the university.

"I worked for Bethlehem 2000 celebrations. We were renovating streets, restoring ancient places. In September that year erupted the 2nd Intifada and everything came to a standstill.

"In 2002 the Israeli army returned to Bethlehem. It was on 2 April 2002. I took shelter in the Church of the Nativity because I was wanted by Israel and if they caught me they would not take me alive... so I run to the church because the Israeli army wanted to kill me.

"We remained in the church for 39 days. The first day we took refuge in the church they cut the electricity and water supplies and there was no food in the church. They were speaking through megaphones: 'You have to come out and we will not kill anybody', but they were lying...

"It was around 19:00. The Church of the Nativity was already surrounded by the Israeli army. Since four or five hours I was in the church. We were 250 people, all men. Many of them were from the PA: police officers, Preventive Security, mukhabarat [General Intelligence], Naval Police and also activists from different political groups. Do you know that? There were approximately ten children, aged 12, 14, 15 in the church... because the Israeli troops were in Bethlehem... and Apache helicopters were in the sky and tanks in the streets... and ordinary citizens run to the church too.

"At the time Ramallah had already been reoccupied and the city of Jenin too and a massacre had taken place in Jenin refugee camp.

"We spoke to the priests of the church... with Ibrahim Faltas, he was the spokesperson of the church. Maybe he was a Greek-Orthodox... he wore a short beard. We told him we were in the church to protect ourselves. He replied: 'Don't be afraid. The church here protects all the men'. During the night the Israelis fired at the church and threw bombs and they had snipers positioned on roofs around the church.

"There was no food but the priests gave us a small quantity of rice... because for 250 people there was nothing! They gave us a small glass of rice like this one and water, only, for the entire day, every day... And do you know that? Israeli snipers killed people inside the church compound... the man who rang the bells... they killed him on the second day! His name... I think his name was George, from the Christian community of Bethlehem and he was working in the church. I knew him because when I was a child I used to go to the Nativity Church and I knew all the things of the church. George was around 40-year-old.

"Because there was no food we ate the lemons in the garden and when there were no anymore lemons we ate the leaves of the lemon trees. It was a large garden but we couldn't go inside because the Israelis were firing... the snipers were firing at us... and we were eating leaves of lemon trees... and at the end we drunk water with salt to remain alive. And when we left the church after 39 days there were no anymore leaves on the lemon trees, only naked branches.

"Nidal Abayat... a big wanted by Israel... from the Martyrs El-Aqsa Brigades. He had killed soldiers... and Israel wanted him... While he was hanging out the washing on the line to dry in the garden he was shot dead.

"In total nine were killed inside the church compound and 30 injured... even a clergyman was shot dead, Jack El-Assad. He was Italian, 40-year old... They executed him in the Santa Marina Church. El-Assad family is from Beit Sahour.

"One night five collaborators escaped from the church with ladders provided by the Israelis, after twenty days. They said to the Israelis that we were without food. At the time there was an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis: only six will be deported to Gaza. However, when the Israelis knew from the five spies how our situation was they broke the agreement... They thought we were going to surrender because we were hungry.

"One of those killed inside the church compound... I knew him. His name was Khalaf Najaj'ra... yes... he was my friend. They killed him because he was wanted... He belonged to the Martyrs El-Aqsa Brigades. When they fired at him, Khalaf was beside me. The Israelis were observing us through binoculars. They took him alive when he left the church, but one hour later they informed us Khalaf was dead. How? They executed him inside the ambulance, on the way to the hospital. I think so... because Khalaf spoke with me when he was injured and he asked me to take care of his boys and girls. He was 43-year old.

"Most of the people who died in the church compound bled to death in front of our eyes.... because nobody was able to attend them. The Israelis took them to hospital only after three or four hours...

"At the time there was with us a group of foreigners who after a certain time succeeded to enter the church compound. They had food, biscuits, but only a small quantity. I spoke with them because nobody knew English well. I spoke with them the first night they came. They were Americans or British. They came and sat with us. They asked us about our life in the church and how we felt... and they wrote like you and took pictures... but I don't know where went the pictures... There was an American girl. Everyday I spoke to her in the church.

"They saw how Khalaf was shot. They took pictures. I told them: 'The Israelis don't want to take him to hospital.' And when Khalaf was transported out of the church, they took pictures of him and when the Israelis announced he was dead, they cried... because Khalaf spoke to us before leaving the church...

"Many groups attempted to enter the compound, but they failed. This group was the only one successful and they remained with us for a few days.

"Before that, four of five days after we took refuge in the church, the Israelis attacked the side called El-Khukhaniya, where are located the priests' rooms. They broke the windows and entered the rooms... but our men inside fired at them and the Israelis responded to the fire. In the morning, when our men went to check the rooms, they found M-16 rifles, four other weapons and four revolvers. The Israelis fled and left their weapons behind! The priests took pictures of the weapons... and a fire broke out in the church compound that night because they threw bombs.

"We believed at the beginning that the Israelis couldn't touch the church because it is an international holy place for all the Christians in the world. The Nativity Church is not like a Palestinian mosque!

"The Israeli negotiated with the PA. Some groups left the church. After 34 or 35 days the PA told us 26 of us should go to Gaza and 13 to Europe for two years. We refused... but at the end we were obliged to accept. Inside the church there were two PA officials who took shelter with us. They advised us to accept the deal, otherwise they said many men will leave and the Israelis will come to kill us.

"After 34 days we couldn't walk anymore, no shower, nothing. I had lost 15 kilos! I couldn't walk! I couldn't stand! We were afraid they will killed us inside the church... For that we were obliged to accept the agreement: 13 will be deported to Cyprus, as a prime destination, and 26 to Gaza for two years. The others will be checked and sent home.

"I didn't tell you... the smokers rolled cigarettes with tea. We were sleeping on a blanket put on the floor... two or three men for a blanket without cover and it was very cold in April in the church. We were so weak that we performed our prayers sitting on the floor. It was the first time that Muslims prayed in the Nativity Church! And I saw something very moving... when someone was dying the priests were crying...

"Among the men not all of them were from Bethlehem and there were three Christians: Raed Shatara, from Bethlehem, who was later deported to Gaza; Chris who was then sentenced to life and the third one, George, returned home.

"Every night the Israeli troops were firing at the church compound and throwing bombs. Powerful projectors illuminated the church and loud music was played all over the night... and continuously they were shouting through megaphones, day and night.

"We were not terrorists, as they pretended. We wanted to defend our town. The occupiers came to Bethlehem and surrounded our church! We wanted them to leave Bethlehem and we didn't want to surrender.

"On Friday 10 May we were taken to the buses... we were extremely happy and extremely sad at the same time. Extremely happy because we left the church and we didn't go to jail in Israel; extremely sad because we were separated from our families. When I came out of the church I saw at a distance my mother and my wife standing near the Mosque Omar Ibn El-Khattab. I waved at them farewell.

"In the bus they beat us and there were dogs. Two buses took us to Gaza, we were thirteen in each bus. Inside my bus the armed soldiers were fourteen or fifteen with two or three dogs. They ordered us to bend our heads and not to move. They took us to Atziun, it's an Israeli jail in the West Bank, in the Hebron region. After that we were questioned by the mukhabarat and then we left for Gaza.

"At Beit Hanoun [Erez] crossing, we couldn't stand on our legs. We were exhausted... but when we saw all the people of Gaza coming to welcome us, suddenly we became very strong! The Gazans wanted to see us! We were heroes for them: 39 days without food and under fire!

"We were taken to Beach Hotel, El-Quds Hotel or El-Hilal Hotel [of the PRCS]... and we ate kebab, but many of us fell ill and were taken to hospital because we ate meat after fasting for 39 days! In addition, the water of the church was bad... we were drinking from a well. We suffered from stomachaches in Gaza and a number of us had to see a doctor. PA rented flats and after some days we went to the flats, four or us in every flat.

"Six months later I asked my wife to come to Gaza through Jordan and Egypt till the Rafah border. She travelled for four days with Mohammad, 4-year old, and Nasrallah, 2-year old. She took a plane from Amman to Cairo, she paid 300 or 400 dollars. It is extremely expensive to travel from Bethlehem to Gaza via Jordan and Egypt. Instead, to enter Gaza through Erez is only one hour's drive from the West Bank and it is extremely cheap. Israel doesn't want our families to come via Erez!

"Since we are in Gaza some of us have been to Egypt for three or four months for medical treatments or to meet their families. Samed and Raed have been in Jordan for five years now. Ali, from Ed-Dheisheh refugee camp, got married two years ago in Jordan but the mukhabarat asked him to leave the country and he went to Syria. Mazen, a police officer from Jenin, studied psychology at the university in Gaza and went to Egypt for the doctorate's degree.

"When I came to Gaza I studied at El-Qods Open University Social Services. I wanted to continue at the same university for the master but there isn't such kind of study there.

"Life in Gaza is very hard for us. We were told we should remain for two years far away from our homes and then we will return to Bethlehem. Two years have passed and another two years have passed and another two years have passed and now, after eight years and a half, there is no return in sight! The Israeli army surrounds the Gaza Strip. We the deportees cannot go to Jordan. We can only go to Egypt for medical treatments or to pursue our studies and to Mekka for the pilgrimage.

"If my wife wants to travel to Bethlehem via Egypt and Jordan it will be extremely difficult because we have five children now. She cannot go like this... it is a long and very expensive journey. I cannot afford it, even if my wife has a job and teaches Religion to girls in a government school at the twelfth grade for the Tawjihi [matriculation exam].

"Further, there is something very difficult for us in Gaza. We leave in the uncertainty. We don't know when we will return. It's very difficult. We don't want to remain in Gaza but we don't know when we will leave. So we cannot start to build anything stable here.

"Last year I travelled to Mekka and I met my mother because [President] Abu Mazen offered us the pilgrimage, to all of us and to one of our parents. I saw my mother after more than seven years and a half. I met my mother in Mekka. It was a happy day... but when I saw my mother I had a tremendous shock because I saw her ill and weak and old. My father couldn't travel to Mekka because he suffers from a severe heart condition. He is very weak.

"I want to see my father but I cannot. My father is far away from me one hour's drive, less than 100 km. My father told me over the phone he wanted to see my children before dying. Every day we call Bethlehem. I ask my father about his health. He says: 'My son, I want to see your two daughters and your three sons. I am afraid I will die without seeing them.' Three of my children were born in Gaza, he has never seen them... He is very ill. Several days ago he was taken to hospital for two days. He is now 70. I am afraid the day will come they will tell me my father has died... I am very afraid of that. I expect any moment to receive such call... My wife too... she wants to see her parents. One of her brothers died two months ago at the age of 25 of an illness. She couldn't see him... and her parents are aging...

"We have been to all the human rights organizations in Gaza. We told them everything. They took note on a paper and then nothing. We have called [the Israeli organization] Hamoked in Jerusalem. We spoke to them and we submitted medical reports concerning the illness of my father... but the Israeli authorities don't want...

"Even if you give me a castle I don't want to remain in Gaza. I have my home in Bethlehem and my father has his home and I have land too... but we cannot go there... Here it's my country, but Bethlehem is my hometown. My children want to see their grandfathers and their grandmothers and they want to see their cousins and to speak with them. They speak with their cousins only over the phone.

"I forgot to tell you... On the second day, when we were in the church, the soldiers went to my home and to my father's home and devastated our homes... and they threw the water tank from the roof on my car and my car was damaged. They took my ill father and my brother to the Peace Center in Manger Square. Inside the Peace Center were stationed mukhabarat and Israeli soldiers. They wanted my father to call me through a megaphone and to ask me to leave the church. My father refused to do that. They locked my father in a room... he is diabetic... he became sick in the room. They had to take him to hospital... but he refused to call me! He refused to do that!

"We negotiated the deal for our exit from the church? At first Mohammad El-Madani, the governor of Bethlehem, who took refuge in the church and the deputy Salah Et-Tamari, but they failed. The Governor of Bethlehem was with us in the church, but he was sleeping in the priests' rooms. Then Khaled El-Islam, whose other name is Mohammad Rashid. He was the [economic] advisor to Yasser Arafat. He negotiated with the CIA, the British intelligence, Tony Blair, Yasser Arafat and the Israelis.

"The Pope's envoy, Monsignor Etchegaray, came from Rome, but he was stopped at the Israeli checkpoint at the entrance of Bethlehem. As the priests told us, Israeli didn't want Etchegaray to come to the church. The EU was also involved and when the 13 were taken to Ben Gourion Airport for Cyprus, I saw a EU car in the convoy.

"Every week, on Monday morning, in Gaza City, I take part in the sit-in at the ICRC in solidarity with the political prisoners who languish in Israeli jails... because I have been a prisoner in Israeli jails and because I know how harsh it is. Secondly, because I am a prisoner in Gaza. When they deported us to Gaza they wanted to deprive us of our freedom and it was in 2002, long before the Israeli-imposed closure of the Gaza Strip.

"Last August, on the first day of the Holy Month of Ramadan, we the deportees and our friends and my wife went near the Erez crossing. At 18:30 when came the time to break our fasting we ate our meal there. In Bethlehem our families were doing the same. We wanted to be symbolically reunited with our loved ones... and El-Jazeera TV broadcasted the images live.

"Abdallah Daud, a former mukhabarat from Nablus, was deported with the group for Europe. He passed away in Algeria, on 26 March 2010, this year. His mother and later one his sister died, and the heart of Abdallah couldn't resist. After Cyprus, he had been to Mauritania and to Algeria. The Israeli authorities didn't give him the authorization to return to see his mother and his sister for the last time. Abdallah Daud returned to Nablus in a coffin.

"The deal concocted by Israel, the CIA, the British intelligence, the EU and Mohammad Rashid was illegal under the 4th Geneva Convention and international law. An occupied people cannot be displaced to another territory, it's illegal, it's a crime. And Europe, in the first place, should not accept the deportees on its soil.

"We have written a number of times to the former Secretary-General of UN, Kofi Hanan, and to Bamki Moon. They didn't reply to us.

"Finally, I want to send an appeal to all the people of conscience around the world and to all the countries of the United Nations. I speak on behalf of all the deportees of the Nativity Church and I am the spokesperson of the deportees of Gaza: We want to return to Bethlehem. Please help us!"

- Flora Nicoletta is an independent French journalist living in Gaza. She is currently working on her fourth book on the Palestinian question.





:: Article nr. 71273 sent on 28-oct-2010 20:34 ECT

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