Life in Beit Sahour: Jaela Andoni’s Story
Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 19.05.2008:
Interview series Anne Gough
“This land is the skin on my bones” – Mahmoud Darwish
Life in Beit Sahour
I was born on May 12, 1948 in Beit Sahour. My farther came from Jerusalem that day, where he was working, and there had been many clashes around the city. The British army was withdrawing and the Israelis were taking over. My father finally arrived home to find my mother had given birth, I was their first baby. They didn’t know what to name me, because, as they told me later, they were so disturbed by the war and they were uncertain about what would happen. Nearby, some of the Israeli soldiers were clashing with Arab fighters at the Etzion Camp. Because of this, someone suggested the name Etzion. My mother said absolutely not! The priest came to our home, as was the tradition after the birth of a baby. My mother gave birth to me and all my brothers and sisters at home; we are five sisters and three brothers. My father was reading the newspaper about the evacuation of the British troops from Palestine. The word evacuation in Arabic is Jaela and the priest pointed to it and said, “This is a very nice name, why don’t you name her Jaela?” Since that day, my date of birth was the beginning of the era of Israel, it marks their independence day.
At that time our life here was very simple, people were poor. My father was a teacher at the Lutheran School. He was supporting us and also my grandparents. With 25 Jordanian dinars, his monthly salary, he supported the whole family. And I remember that my grandmother was always sick and needing medicine. Under Jordanian rule, we were completely cut off from Israel. We knew nothing of them, how they were living, we never met with them. There was a kind of a wall between the West Bank and Israel. We had access to Jordan of course, by car. I also studied at the Lutheran School. The principal of the school, Jabar Nasser, and his wife were originally from Nazareth. During Christmas, or certain parts of the year, they were allowed to go to the Mandelbaum Gate. It is a gate in Jerusalem; they used to meet their families there for only a short time. When they would return to Beit Sahour, they would tell us about visiting their families and crying when they had to leave.
In 1965 I was awarded a scholarship to study in Amman. At that time there was only one other girl from Beit Sahour studying in college. People at that time sent their daughters to colleges where they studied for two years to be teachers. But my mother wanted me to study because she was deprived from school, she married at fifteen. She encouraged me to go to the university.
I used to take a taxi from Beit Sahour to Amman. It was only one and a half hour away, two at the most. We were really like one country. My son came from Jenin to Beit Sahour today (100 Km), he had to go through five checkpoints and it took him four hours. The borders with Israel were in Jerusalem. We used to go to the holy places there; we went to the Dome of the Rock and the Holy Sepulcher. But the other day we visited Jerusalem and the Israeli police refused to let us into the Dome of the Rock. They said, “You are Christian, you don’t have the right to go in”.
I started at the university in 1965; there was tension between Egypt, Jordan and Israel. I was in my second year in 1967 and we were in our final exams in June when the Six Day War broke out. The university suddenly shut down. I used to go to my parents’ house every few weeks, according to my studies. As the war broke out, we saw many people fleeing the West Bank and going to the eastern part of Jordan. I waited for my family to come, but no, people of Beit Sahour stayed. They do not like leaving. I remember what Jaba Nasser suffered; I thought that I would now be cut off from family. I had only one relative in Jordan, a very distant cousin, who I had never visited.
Jordanian soldiers came to our dormitory. Palestinian girls were the only ones staying there as most Jordanian students lived at home. The soldiers told us that we had to evacuate the dormitory because they needed to use it as a hospital. No one who was responsible from the university was there; we had no place to go. We collected our things, my friend who was from Biet Jala suggested I come with her to her uncle’s house. In some ways, I had no other option. I had not spoken with my cousin and had no way of contacting him. I went with her and stayed for two nights. The wife of her uncle did not like it; she was worried we would stay with her family. She already had four children and didn’t know how she would feed us or take care of us. Some people were going to Palestine through the Jordan River. The wife told us, “Go! There are people who will show you the way.” To go this way, to cross the river at night with no boat, is quite risky. Some people had drowned trying to do this and we didn’t even know how to swim.
Finally after a few days, my cousin found me. Really, he rescued me. I stayed with his family during July and August. Even his wife encouraged me to try to return to Beit Sahour, but I had no way to go. A man from Beit Sahour came to Amman with his wife; he was on his way back to South America. He delivered a letter to me from my parents. They told me not to even think about coming back to Palestine in this risky way, all alone. The Red Cross was trying to arrange family reunions and that this would be the best way to return. Stay where you are, they said, maybe the university will reopen.
In a few weeks the university did announce that the exams we missed in June because of the war were to be rescheduled for September. My father sent me some money and the university reopened the dormitory. During the Six Day War there were no real casualties on the Jordanian side, they had never used the dormitory as a hospital.
In September we had exams and my scholarship was reinstated. Around Christmas my family eventually received the permission for us to meet on the King Hussein Bridge, it was the only connection between the West Bank and Jordan. The permission was only for the bridge, we could only meet for a few hours. We arrived at the bridge and I saw my family and we hugged, cried and kissed. I had not seen them since June. They brought me a basket full of biscuits and sweets. I remember being surprised because most of them were Israeli made. They were new in the market, after the war Israel flooded the West Bank with many new products.
During my fourth year of school, two years after the war, I obtained the official family reunion permission. I came back through the bridge, the Jordanians and Israelis had arranged the regulations around these family reunion permissions. It took me three or four hours to return home because of the checkpoints. We were searched and investigated.
I stayed with my family for one week and then returned to the university to finish and graduate. I graduated in 1969, and we had a very somber graduation ceremony. Usually they had a party, but they said that now they were mourning the loss of the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai. I thought, after graduating, of working in Amman. But my family suggested I return to Beit Sahour and save money. I was the only teacher with a B.A. in English Literature at that time and was hired by the Secondary Girls School of Bethlehem. It was the largest school in the area at the time.
Teaching at this time was very difficult. Whenever there was a demonstration, the young men from different political parties would come to the school and take the girls to the demonstration. Sometimes the Israeli troops would pass by and the boys or girls would throw stones at them and they would shoot tear gas at us. In 1973, we rented a small apartment in the old city; I was pregnant with my first daughter Carol. The war broke out between Israel and Egypt and we were told to hang blankets over the windows and paint the headlights of our cars. This is when the Egyptians took the Sinai back. The U.S. started negotiations, Jimmy Carter interfered, and they signed in 1978 the Camp David Accords.
The First Intifada
The first Intifada began in 1987. We were living here; we had built the downstairs apartment. We gave a contractor a monthly payment to complete the apartment. When the Intifada broke out we already had three children and, of course, we were in trouble as this road goes to Herodion and the Israeli military camp. The Israeli settlers used to pass by here, before the bypass road was built. Sometimes young men would hide behind our gate and throw stones at the settlers as they drove by.
Once, I was at home watching TV and my husband was holding Samer. He was one year old. Outside, one of the young boys throwing stones broke the windshield of a settler’s car. We had no idea what was happening outside as we used to keep everything closed. Suddenly a young man from the neighborhood came to our front door and cried, “He is following me, he is following me! Please let me in!” We let him in, we couldn’t say no, and he went out the back door. The settler claimed to see him coming into our house. He broke the glass of our door with his gun and pointed it at us. I jumped over the broken glass, I was barefoot because it was it was summer, and I wanted to confront him. To stop him from doing anything. I opened the door and he started swearing at me. He claimed that it was my son who broke his window, I told him it wasn’t and he called me horrible names. I showed him the photograph of my son and asked, “Was this the boy that broke your windshield?” He said no, it wasn’t this boy.
But the next day he returned to our house. All the neighbors disappeared, nobody came to our rescue. We confronted him alone. He shouted at us, I showed him my older son. He admitted that this was also not the one. I was relieved. Later, I heard that this settler would often drive by our house, looking for the young man that damaged his car. The boy that did break his car was quite young, only 13. He was the only child in his family and it would have been a disaster if the settler had found him.
The First Intifada was only throwing stones, never shooting. Of course, we received shooting from the Israeli side. During the First Intifada we were able to organize people, and people cooperated. One family offered a piece of their land and we planted it with tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and zucchini. When they collected the crops they put them in small bags to give to nearby families. In every area, there was a piece of land that was used in this way. We had committees in every neighborhood, from the PLO, and with the help of ARIJ’s Dr. Jad Isaac. If there was room, we kept sheep and goats for milk. We had to be independent and produce our own food. However, when we had two or three hours without curfew, we would go to the market. Some grocers would go to Jericho and bring cauliflower, potatoes and rice. We don’t grow those things in this area. You know, we can’t only eat tomatoes and eggplant.
During the First Intifada people in Beit Sahour refused to pay their taxes. The soldiers came to my brother’s house and took their living room furniture, their refrigerator, and their olivewood machines. The soldiers went crazy when we destroyed our ID cards.
Our town, Beit Sahour, is unique in the way people love their land. If we compare to Bethlehem, they used to move to the States or South American in larger number than those in Beit Sahour. Unfortunately, this is changing. Today if you give someone the opportunity to leave, they will gladly take it. Because of the economy, there are no jobs. Many graduates from Bethlehem University have found it very difficult to find work. Some people start restaurants or clothing shops, and this is not working well. In the past, everybody tried to stay here to work. Either on their land or in trades like olivewood. My father used to work in olivewood and mother of pearl, he exported to the states. He passed away four years ago and now my brother has taken over his business.
We started to have some stability in 1995, after the Palestinian Authority was formed. We thought we would have a state very soon. But this lasted only five years, until 2000. In these nice five years, we stopped seeing the jeeps and tanks near the front door of our homes.
In 1996, a vacancy opened in the Ministry of Education for Bethlehem Government Schools. I applied and became the Director of English, we took courses in Ramallah. We went to Japan for about six weeks, to learn more about their school system. We even went to a conference with Israeli educators in Florence, Italy. It was a very nice time, these years. We went to Tulkarem without any problem, to create the government English exams. It doesn’t (didn’t) last long, in 2001 the 2nd Intifada started. We had clashes at the military camp and shooting from all around, we used to have to lie on the floor to be safe. Things became much more difficult. More checkpoints, more shooting, more sitting in the car and sweating as we waited in lines. So, I filed for early retirement. I had worked for about thirty years and I had high blood pressure and stress.
We had a forty-day curfew when the fighters took over the Nativity Church in 2002. An agreement was signed and the fighters were sent to Gaza or to Europe. They have not been able to meet with their families since. They are in jails in these countries. We went to the church after their release and we saw the damage. One part of the Catholic side was burned and we could see the blood on the roof. The Israelis used to fly a white balloon with cameras over the area of Manger Square to monitor the situation. We saw people helping to clean and repair the church.
NGOs / Stateless
After retiring I started joining NGOs. At the AEI we have a parents’ group and women’s group. We meet with internationals and talk about our stories and how we try to be here, to exist here. Because we believe that to exist here is a kind of resistance. We are resisting the occupation, we don’t agree with the occupation, but we want a just peace, not any peace. We want our children to have a good life. Not all the Palestinians are terrorists. In every country there are extremists that cling to their beliefs and refuse to change. Now we know that on the Israeli side, there are people that want peace and believe in the rights of Palestinians. With the Holy Land Trust we host Americans and American Jews. Also with the Alternative Tourism Group, we like to meet people and show them how we are living.
Last year I had the opportunity to go to Brussels for a conference on the Freedom from Fear. It was sponsored by Pax Christi and I was able to meet Iraqis, Palestinians from Lebanon, one who is responsible for the refugee camps in Lebanon, an engineer from Gaza. They had a very difficult time getting out of Gaza. During the conference, we learned many things about life in Iraq and life in the refugee camps in Lebanon. In comparison, I saw that life in Bethlehem was not as terrible. We have had sieges here, but not like Gaza.
At least during Easter and holidays we have permission to go to Jerusalem and wherever we want in Israel, except to Eliat. All the permissions are like this. Only during Christian holidays can we receive this permission, and every year we have to reapply for it. And Samer often doesn’t get one, because he is too young. During Christmas I received a permission and my husband didn’t get one. So he went by himself to Etzion and said, “I’m more than sixty years old and I need a permission”. He left Etzion with the permission.
I think it is a policy; they want to show the Americans that they are good to Christians. Also, it is good for their economy. We go to the market and to buy things.
We are trying to believe that one day we will have peace; we are trying to develop a peace spirituality. Some women still don’t want to accept to the fact that Israel is there and that we have to recognize it. We have discussions about this, because some Israelis have also suffered. But it is difficult for Palestinians to forget about the dark times and to grow and change. And of course, we hope to see growth and change on the Israeli side. We go also to the Alternative Information Center, and we met with the women of Machsoum Watch. We met with them about five times and they listened to our stories. They told us why they established their association; they used to monitor about 350 checkpoints. Some of the Israeli soldiers either became better or very nervous when the women watch the checkpoints. The woman who founded the organization was moved to do so after hearing about the number of women who gave birth behind checkpoints. But now they don’t come anymore, maybe the checkpoints are too difficult to get threw. And now some of the checkpoints are closed, everything happens inside.
As women we communicate and talk about our lives, and sometimes we also act. We make vigils or demonstrations at the Nativity Square, most recently about Gaza. But as older women, we don’t often go out and do this.
My eldest daughter Carol lives in Germany with her husband and young son. She has German citizenship and a German passport. Last summer she flew into the Tel Aviv airport, she was coming for a month visit because our younger daughter Reem was getting married. At the airport they refused to recognize her German passport. They said that she was Palestinian and took her, with her son to interrogation. In interrogation she was told that she could not use the Tel Aviv airport and, since she didn’t have a valid Palestinian ID, they were going to send her back to Germany. However, she would have to wait to return on the plane she flew in on. This was a Tuesday, the plane did not return until Friday. She was told she and her son would stay at the airport jail until Friday. Of course, we were frantic. She was allowed two phone calls, she called her husband and she called us. We contacted a human rights organization in Israel. They hired a lawyer who took her outdated Palestinian Authority passport and money to renew it to the airport in Tel Aviv. They refused to let the lawyer meet her. We called the German embassy, the woman who helped us there was horrified at the situation. Especially that the Israelis would keep a young boy in the airport prison. They first tried to deny her access to Carol, but she was finally able to see her. Still, they refused to allow Carol to leave the airport, but the woman from the German embassy put her on the next flight to Germany.
Carol missed Reem’s wedding and still cannot stand to look at the photographs. She doesn’t know what to do, how can she visit us? If she tries to enter through Amman on her Palestinian ID or her German passport they may turn her around at the King Hussein bridge because that is not the last point of entrance they have on record for her. Yet if she goes to the Sheik Hussein Bridge, she could also be turned away as she was in Tel Aviv.
How can we work for peace and justice in these kinds of situations? This is also my daughter’s country; she should be able to visit us whenever she can. She is not a terrorist, she poses no threat to the Israelis, yet they tried to keep her in a prison.
Anne Gough is a volunteer from the Unites States in the summer research program of AEI-Open Windows. She is completing her master’s degree in sustainable development, while in Bethlehem she is also working on Decolonizing Architecture, www.decolonizing.ps, a multi-media art project. She is grateful to AEI and all the Palestinian people who have opened their homes and stories to her.