My Soul Aches For Bethlehem

I always wake up before sunrise, no longer needing any alarm and I rug up in my warm clothing and wander the quiet gardens as the morning beams of light penetrate the atmosphere and colour the clouds with a scarlet glow. It is a time of quiet for me to gather my thoughts, to solidify my disposition and prepare for what is often a long day at work full of meetings and people and reports.

I found my movements restricted that early in the morning with my recent visit to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, Palestine and so I would instead climb up to the top of the dilapidated building I was staying in, navigating through the beams and poles that ripped out from the cemented roof and I would simply listen to the distant sounds of cars and buses, the rustling sounds of the birds nesting on the windowsills, the azaan or the Islamic call to worship from the mosque just near me.

Despite the sun rising, Palestinians are asleep until mid-morning as their evenings are often filled with lively conversation and movement late into the night, so I would walk within, around and outside the camp with only the numerous cats to entertain me, sometimes strolling past the occasional Palestinian mother sweeping her dusty floors. There was a fruit and vegetable shop just outside the Aida refugee camp that was always open and I would purchase plums, cucumbers and tomatoes, fresh honey in little plastic cups with a chunk of honeycomb and eggs from the chickens they kept out the back. The eggs were incredible, the yolk so fresh and yellow and all the produce just tasted better then anywhere else as they were grown on the rooftops of Palestinian homes.

Just behind the vegetable shop was Dheisheh refugee camp that, during my stay there, was marred by the death of a 15 year old Arkan Mizher who was shot and killed by IDF soldiers that had entered the camp to make several arrests. My arm was bruised when I was caught in between protests and a stone intending to hit an Israeli soldier instead hit me by accident. I also learnt more about the medical team located within the camp who are responsible for supporting any injuries that often occur in protests nearby being so close to the Israeli barrier wall that is heavily armed.

I had travelled to Bethlehem with the intention to write a book, to tell the stories of women in the camp who struggle from so many various layers of discrimination and I found myself an opportunity to film using my DLSR the stories of young students in Alrowwad Arts and Cultural Centre telling their personal stories through a series of plays, one of them being Momen who spoke of his experience being shot in the head by a rubber coated steel bullet as a paramedic in the region.

He contacted me just yesterday on Instagram right after I did a screening of my documentary with friends at work where we stayed behind in the conference room to watch it only to find ourselves heartbroken together with what he had to say.

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He informed me that his friend and fellow paramedic was shot and killed in Bethlehem despite wearing and clearly indicating that he was a medical volunteer.

The Israeli Knesset continues to defy international law and conscious of this defiance has developed domestic regulations that enable them to legalise the continued violence and annexation of Palestinian lands. The Settlement Regularization Law expropriates Palestinian owned lands and legalises Israeli settlements in the occupied territories in contravention of international law in some bizarre attempt to enable illegal activities. The Security Council Resolution 2334 clearly articulates the continued steps that the Israeli government has taken to backtrack any progress to peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by undermining any genuine attempt toward bilateral negotiations, with such violence only perpetuating the tensions.

Rule No., 25 in Customary International Humanitarian Law clearly states that, “[M]edical personnel exclusively assigned to medical duties must be respected and protected in all circumstances,” whereby all military personnel must respect and protect all medical staff as per Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, further amplified in additional protocols of the Geneva Conventions such as Additional Protocol II, Article 9(1). The use of non-lethal weapons particularly during protests and riots to reduce superfluous casualties or even injuries is a practice also required by international humanitarian standards.

Palestinians are not armed and the majority seek peace, their protestations a rightful expression of their frustrations against the Israeli occupation. This was clearly visible in recent protests that occurred in Gaza, when Donald Trump decidedly and intentionally amplified the tensions by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem knowing that was an expression of his approval that Jerusalem belongs to Israel despite the move being condemned by the international community. The response to the protests involved indiscriminate shootings that killed dozens of protesters and wounded thousands.

The acceleration of these intentional acts that betray international standards is indicative of clear measures that the Israeli Knesset under the leadership of Netanyahu and supported by extremists to overwhelm the Palestinians in specific demographics by removing or controlling them under extreme conditions and adding a colony Israeli settlers. What was initially the defense of Israel’ existence and rights in the region and the protection of the Jewish community, has it now grown into something drawing itself closer towards the title of ethnic cleansing?

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The application of Israeli sovereignty by forcibly removing Palestinians through calculated, strategic and creative methods by the Knesset’ enclave of right-wing minds is disturbing to say the least. Even more disturbing is that nearly 50% of the Israeli population would prefer that all Palestinians be expelled or transferred out of the territories, according to recent research conducted by Pew Research Centre. While the system of international law – particularly international humanitarian law – is not as clear to ensure legislative fluidity necessary to appreciate differences in circumstances, the United Nations Commission defined Ethnic Cleansing more specifically as, “the planned deliberate removal from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group, by force or intimidation, in order to render that area ethnically homogeneous.”

In this argument, however, let us not forget the other half of that Israeli population – notwithstanding the larger Jewish population internationally and particularly in the United States – who often protest the cruel and inhumane attempts of the Israeli government and who support a two-state solution. The reason for the separation of powers is because it is common knowledge that governments almost always abuse their powers and that checks and balances are necessary to keep them accountable. I am and will always be for the two-state solution that involves peace and mutual tolerance, and that must include following international human rights and humanitarian laws.

This young man, despite wearing a brightly colored vest indicating his role as a medical officer, despite the medical office itself being located within Dheisheh refugee camp, despite going out to help the wounded during the clashes, was nevertheless shot with a lethal weapon and killed.

What is the future of Bethlehem?

There is no doubt that a majority of members from the Likud party would want Israel to annex the West Bank and ultimately build more settlements in defiance to international law and these creative acts of violence only help perpetuate such nationalistic overtones and justify feelings of resentment.

It was unexpected how emotional I felt about the death of this young man yesterday as I was there, at the camp, with them and watched them do their voluntary work supporting the injured. To know that even they are not safe from the violence has caused within me a terrible grief and I am worried about the safety of these beautiful young adults who I met, filmed, and stayed with knowing that they are good people forced to live in unsafe conditions. To see them normalise the experience of death is heart-breaking.

Sajid Mizheir.

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