(March 6, 2020) I had just snuggled up to the hot water bottle when one of my teammates knocked on the door. Talking on the phone, she said, “Just a minute,” continued the conversation for a moment, said her goodbyes and told me, “We have to leave. The Jerusalem coordinator is coming to get us. They’re locking down Bethlehem at six am tomorrow morning.” It was 10:30 Thursday night. Seven confirmed cases of coronavirus at a local hotel and the government of Israel decided to button the city up. If you were wondering whose really in charge…
Getting up to dress, pack, help pack the other teammates’ clothing (they were on days off in Tiberias), I wondered what was really going on. Closing down a city with fewer cases of the virus than have already been diagnosed in Israel. Was it the Occupation mentality? An opportunity to shut down a major Palestinian city that’s always bothered Israel by its attraction to busloads of Christians? Or is it the current Prime Minister’s attempt to hold power (after failing to gain a majority in the third election in less than a year) by claiming only he has what it takes to lead a ‘Corona Coalition? He has been portraying his rival as weak and ineffective… (Bethlehem Becomes a Ghost Town after Coronavirus Closure)
Who knows? I do know spending three weeks in Bethlehem, unable to leave, amongst a community whose citizens are already fearful of contamination from ‘Internationals’ is not good to contemplate. How would we even get groceries? Much of our work is in the Area B and C villages outside of Bethlehem where the closure will not allow us to go. Schools and churches and mosques are closed and will stay that way until either the virus stabilizes, or people stop panicking about it. The Israeli military may continue demolishing homes and kidnapping people after midnight, settlers will probably continue taking land and cutting trees down. But maybe not. The fear does seem to be spreading and they too have plague stories to think about. They may not wish to be chosen for the role of virus victim. One can hope.
In the meantime, we must pack our things and those of our teammates and be ready for the ride to Jerusalem where we will overnight in the placement house. A couple of hours later finds us in a heavily laden car, headed for the nearest open checkpoint (the one close to us is closed). Our driver, escort and checkpoint expert tells us he hasn’t seen Bethlehem this quiet on a Thursday night since the curfews of the Second Intifada. It is a bit eerie. Nothing else moves, anywhere. No cars, no people. The streets are silent and still. (Bethlehem deserted after Palestinians declare coronavirus emergency) At the checkpoint, staffed by a half dozen soldiers with automatic weapons, we are stopped and questioned. They are mostly interested in our passports and we are allowed to pass as none of our countries is on ‘the list’ as yet.
Arriving at the Jerusalem placement where one of the team has stayed up to greet us, we are in a bit of delayed reaction shock. We’ve had no opportunity to say goodbye to anyone. We are particularly sad about our driver/interpreter. His one-year-old child has been in and out of the hospital with breathing difficulties, he’s worried, we are worried (we’ve been at the house a few times, to meet his son, wife, sister, mother and father). He’s as focused on this work as we are, perhaps more so, as he lives it with every team, on top of the everyday realities of his life. He’s not even allowed to come to Jerusalem because his extended family is being collectively punished by the Occupation Authorities. Jerusalem, where a very good respiratory therapy clinic has been treating one of the EAs who’s come down with bronchitis. We text him and express our regret. It feels very much like I am abandoning him, his family and the other folk we’ve met. We’ve no time to take our leave gently, no incoming group to place our trust in. It is difficult. Depressing.
Staying in bed past 9 the next day I am greeted by one of the Jerusalem team who is packing her bags. Everyone has been pulled in. The Palestinian Authority has asked all Internationals to leave. It looks like our program will end early. Rising to meet the day I find members of the Jerusalem team gathered in the living room where we are joined by our folk newly arrived from Tiberias. They are here and safe, others are on the way. Texts fly back and forth as each team sends its whereabouts to the group. Everyone is enroute.
Given a bit of time I read an article in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, that says the Prime Minister’s days are numbered. Another outlining the grief of parents from Gaza who were denied a permit to sit at the bedside of their ten-year-old daughter as she succumbed to cancer in a Nablus hospital. One more telling the tale of snipers in the Israeli Army who aim for the knees of protestors at the Gaza fence. Apparently, they’ve chosen a bullet that is most effective for the purpose. The soldiers quoted know they are ‘saving their country from terrorists’. The army, responding to the article, refers to ‘rules of engagement’. Knees and ankles are targets of choice. The better option for dealing with terrorist protestors. The article carries a photograph of young men engaged in a race. A one-legged race. Amputees all.
We are called to a meeting at program headquarters in Jerusalem. Our coordinators tell us about the circumstances leading to the withdrawal of the teams and outline our next steps. Some will stay, there isn’t room for all. Volunteers are called and more than enough respond. I do not. I carry some level of regret about that. Leaving does not feel right. Abandoning people to their fate. My commitment to the program unfulfilled. My heart is sore, even when my mind is clear that this is not all about me. Contingencies are covered. The program will continue. I will continue to be a part of it, just in a different way. Still, it is hard not to insist on staying. It helps to see the younger folk step forward.
I will return home to support them from where I am. And to recruit a few more EAs. Canada is not fulfilling its quota. United Church and Presbyterian folk, take note.